Rugby Finds Space to Breathe as French Clubs Launch Assault on European Summit


Could it have been the zero tolerance recently adopted on high tackles and clear outs, driven by the players and new referee guidelines? Or acclimatisation to empty grounds (not easy)? Or a reaction to the mass outcry against boring kickathons?

Either way, we have seen a number of weeks of rugby of the highest quality and ambition, in the Six Nations, Europe and across domestic leagues. The Six Nations exploded into action after the soul-destroying Autumn series and Wales were deserved winners. They had the best discipline and developed their youngsters better than anyone else including the French who had rather too many at their disposal in the end to know who to choose from! Ireland’s development plan became clear with that stunning English win, and the ticking time bomb of a ball always meant to be passed was defused even by England who ended up out of sorts, mistrustful of their young stars and seemingly more weighed down than others in a pressured, constrained environment. How did Scotland finish 4th after two stunning away wins? They could have won the Grand Slam and their confidence will have skyrocketed after this season, a big moment for them.

We have seen some incredible talent come through which will bode well for Rugby World Cup 2023. It feels a little Darwinian, that coaches and players decided to adapt and change or risk permanent rejection from frustrated fans. Just as well the stadia were empty at times, the pressure has been different, self-imposed rather than with expectant crowds.

There is nothing like KO rugby to bring out the best in people and we saw that in both European competitions, with last minute triumph and heartbreak in equal measure, London Irish/ Cardiff, Wasps/Clermont, Munster/Toulouse, Dragons/Saints the best examples. Sensational stuff.

Crowds do matter. Although you felt that Munster’s disadvantage was greater than others -the Thomond Park roar is legendary – I also cannot imagine a full- throated Parc Y Scarlets not inspiring the men in Red (so many 6 Nations champs in their midst) on to greater efforts although Sale Sharks have made a statement and a half to the club world after that performance. Our and other sports could have done a lot more to get crowds to and from our stadia safely, but this is another story.

The best coaches from the past (and mine), Brian Ashton and Jack Rowell, always talked about running into space not contact. It was refreshing to hear Ronan O’Gara rehearse this after the La Rochelle match which had seen multiple examples – same throughout the Wasps/Clermont and Munster/Toulouse encounters which were of the highest class given this was last 16 not semi-finals. The French psyche has been well and truly re-awoken, and it will take world class performances from Exeter, Leinster, Sale to stop a team from France lifting the trophy this year. It is a crying shame that Marseille cannot be the finals destination, but these are Covid times, and we live with the outcomes.

Quarter Final weekend approaches and another eye-watering set of match ups. I cannot wait and will even squeeze in luckily to watch a game live – now there is a thing to celebrate and while the TV coverage is exceptional, we all want crowds in stands cheering their heroes. Coming soon.

Thanks for reading,

Hallers

English Rugby Sees Red As Youth Takes Its Chance


As the 6N deals with its own Covid challenges, Premiership Rugby was experiencing another painful reminder about the reality of improving safety in our game. 5 red cards in three matches the other weekend for head contact caused dismay but a different reaction to that of a couple of years ago. Then, ex players and coaches were holding their own heads in dismay or rolling their eyes at decisions which were ‘ruining’ a game which was apparently going soft.

No longer – the players and scientists have spoken loudly and now let us watch the behaviour change. Certain defence coaches will have to change their story. The very best of them all, Shaun Edwards, got there before them and the worst news for other European rugby nations/clubs is that the new discipline is seeping into French consciousness under his tutelage. We also learnt that Wales has not suffered a yellow or red card for 14 matches which could be one reason behind their success and a legacy of Edwards?

Talking of which, rarely can a Wales v England match have generated so many headlines. A record score for the men in red, and very grumpy behaviour from the visitors. Wayne Pivac whispered it quietly that he had been giving youngsters their chance in the Autumn and perhaps this performance was conclusive justification of that approach- Rees-Zammit, Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy have come of age and effectively won the game for their country.

Elsewhere, Cameron Redpath of Scotland, Craig Casey and Hugo Keenan of Ireland, Steve Varney and Paolo Garbisi of Italy, have all marked out a bright International Future having been given a chance.

As for the French, they approach Twickenham at the weekend having nearly triumphed with their third team back in the Autumn. Their top picks are still youngsters so it will be a fascinating contrast. A rather grim faced England squad was having to watch sensational Premiership matches this weekend just gone with untrusted talent blossoming wherever you look and performing in some problem positions for England. However, a shot at redemption for the incumbents is not to be underrated.

While Covid may or may not have disrupted France, England has a massive point to prove and with most of the same players it seems. I have said often there is always a good England team around the corner because of their resources, and selection is the key. I remember when 6 England players were banned for fighting/dirty play (no Welsh mind you) and three more dropped in 1987 after the Arms Park debacle – I and many others were then selected against Scotland who were chasing the Triple Crown, bursting with British Lions and on the day we crushed them. Heart, soul, belief and pride.

These qualities can take you a long way in rugby, and talking of which no rugby team should go unprepared to Cornwall, the ‘Badlands’ as described by the Pirates coach, which Saracens obviously did to their cost. In my Bath days, Redruth Rugby Club was all about Hellfire corner (a slice of their ground at the bottom of a steep slope, against the wind, always muddy and impossible to escape from) and you knew to get ready for a tustle, win or lose.

Even in today’s pre- programmed world, rugby can spring great surprises which is why we all love the game and will look forward avidly to this weekend.

Thanks for reading,
Hallers

Simon Halliday
simon@sportingwineclub.com
www.sportingwineclub.com

Elementary for Watson as wide receivers rule


Dear Members,

Many people will be aware of the acronym KISS, not just because of Valentine’s weekend just past. Keep It Simple Stupid was often used in our Bath rugby training sessions (and elsewhere) when we were working out winning strategies. Eddie Jones has suggested that England was guilty of too much analysis and trying too hard. The answer is that Rugby is still a simple game despite data consultants and coaches persuading you differently. Recent match data has been less than useless recently in pointing to eventual winners, witness possession statistics for example. It is what you do with the ball you get !!

England, Italy, Wales and Scotland entrusted their wide runners with various opportunities and were handsomely rewarded. Watson, the obvious man of the match, clearly has had a bellyful of spectating so he showed us all exactly why he should be fed the ball early and regularly. He also received as much possession from Italy’s kickers as from his own midfield which was remarkably generous. Eliot Daly still looks well short of his best. The change of pace and ability to unlock defences seems not to be there. Henry Slade is also under par partly because the partnership with Farrell looks very forced and needs work to succeed. Overall, England may require more pace in the back row so Billy needs to sharpen up or the likes of Simmonds and Dombrandt come into the picture.

I rated the Italian effort, especially the simple quality of their two tries which showed England a thing or two. Their two young halfbacks would have made merry behind the England pack. The scoreline flattered the hosts, especially if you regrettably chalk out the ‘Mayfly’ touchdown which was NFL-like and technically illegal as Nigel Owens pointed out.

However, they will take the predicted victory forward to Wales, who will have gained huge confidence from their Murrayfield triumph. Scotland will feel aggrieved because the skills of their backline under Hogg’s exceptional leadership (and the Lions?) should have won the day. However, Rees-Zammit (a la Watson) can turn matches and hide any number of woes, and the sympathetic passing of the exotically named Willis Halaholo may point to a hidden talent for Wales. As Ireland found out and now Scotland, unnecessary head contact costs you the match and there is no excuse – surely both countries will learn their lesson as they would have undoubtedly both won with a full complement. Shaun Edwards taught Wales to tackle legally a long time ago and now they have played two won two. Who would have thought it!

France’s first try in Dublin had so many ‘offloads’ in the lead up it was faintly surreal but tells you how far Les Bleus have come in their game development. As in Italy they struck rapier-like at the first sign of opportunity. This is not the perfect side yet by any means, but one that quietly knows its potential. Penaud’s effort reflected great vision by Dupont and Jalilbert, and again emphasised the potency of creativity at pace. Conversely, the Irish attack was unfocused and often behind the gainline with unsympathetic passing all too prevalent, stifling opportunity. Can someone tell me what John Cooney has done wrong? The Ulsterman was in my humble opinion a stand out player to replace Conor Murray.

After Round 2, I am smiling with the thought that some old rugby truths still apply – quality ball to your best runners can reap match winning rewards and it is so exciting to watch. Blundering high collision tactics are yesterday’s story and lead to injuries and suspensions. QED !

Thanks for reading,

Hallers

Simon Halliday
simon@sportingwineclub.com

Farewell to a Rugby Warrior


David Egerton arrived at Bath in the mid eighties when the supreme back row of the time was storming through club rugby, namely Roger Spurrell, Bath’s piratical Captain, a young Jon Hall who was terrifyingly good as well as terrifying, and Paul Simpson, the ebullient Northerner who enjoyed himself far too much to enjoy a long England career.

Dave was very different, controlling line-outs at will given his height and covering the ground with great authority, quite easy given his long stride. He had great ball-handing ability, soon became a dominant figure and worked himself into a Bath legend.

Unlike the overtly snarling characters in the Bath pack, who commanded respect in the deepest reaches of the Welsh Valleys, he was understated but had the same effect. I remember when felled by an aggressive opposition forearm, a passing Chilcott or Spurrell would most likely have given me a clip on the way past to rub it in. Dave stopped and winked at me: ‘Hallers, you ok? Man or mouse?’ and the challenge was the same but delivered very differently.

Few people messed with him, as he was an intimidating figure. Undoubtedly, when flanked by Jon Hall and Andy Robinson in the late eighties, this back row was a huge key to our success. If I, Stuart Barnes or Jerry Guscott found our way blocked, Edgy would be there cleaning up the mess and was often the unsung hero against his more illustrious colleagues.

England’s famous win against Australia in 1988 at Twickenham to herald a revival leading to two grand slams and a World Cup Final saw some mighty contributions from Dave that day. But for Dean Richards, Mike Teague and injuries, he would have won many more caps. He was tough as teak, but a gentle giant. One of those great combinations.

In some early tributes, many refer to his rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’. It was a special song to him and he made it a party piece. Dave was a member of the Bath Dining Club (BDC) and in the infamous French restaurant in Bath called the Beaujolais, his table-top version ended up with a paper tablecloth on fire and general consternation from everyone but the phlegmatic owner Jean-Pierre.

I did not see much of Dave after our careers finished, but occasional reunions brought back the memories. He always had a broad smile on his face and remembered way more than I ever could aspects of our rugby times together, mostly at my expense. As with anyone who played for Bath, there was respect and an unstated bond of unity. We all knew how our collective will and effort had brought us the success we enjoyed.

Edgy will be missed in so many ways, and although he is gone he will never be forgotten. The rugby gods will be welcoming him to the top table I can guarantee and no doubt ‘Ring of Fire’ will be their first request.

RIP David.

Simon John Halliday

LIGHT AT THE END OF A RUGBY TUNNEL


Cold winter winds have been blowing across the rugby grounds of Europe, and the Covid strains have placed even more pressure on our societies and ability to function. As you all know the next two rounds of our European tournament have been postponed by a French Government directive. Depressing though that is, the aggressive roll out of the vaccines means that an end of some sort is in sight – but parking that for now we can look at some really promising trends.

So, a Happy New Year to you all for a better 2021 in general and for rugby the signs are there. Here are five trends which I hope we will see develop……..

Inspiration over perspiration

Some mini heroes are emerging from some thrilling club matches over the last number of weeks. A stunning away win by Munster at Clermont revealed the men in red running into space and in particular a reborn JJ Hanrahan. Did you see O’Mahony handling like a seasoned centre? Having said that, Clermont were untouchable through the middle for 40 minutes and simply owe it to themselves to double up and do themselves justice. What a match that was!

Antoine Dupont is continuing to stretch the boundaries at scrumhalf for Toulouse as he can and no wonder Eddie Jones is forced to look at Harry Randall…… if you are good enough you are big enough. Robson remains my favourite to take the England game onwards out wide.

Radradra of Bristol Bears may well be  the best player in the world because he creates something every time he touches the ball, with pace, wit and is a physical handful. By the way, can the media delete the description ‘wrecking ball’ please. Irrelevant and outdated.

The Spiral Bomb

It was Stuart Barnes who perfected the art back in the 80’s and caused the ribs of many a fullback to be tickled by various chasers, mainly centres. Then came the rugby league end over end versions, which also meant kicks to touch went ten frustrating yards until Henry Slade changed the ambition in one kick at Exeter. George Ford has cottoned on to the skill and Watson didn’t like it one bit the other week. Now that’s proper kicking and if he can defuse the ticking time bomb called passing the ball, perhaps he can come back into the reckoning.

I am sure I echo the thought of every other rugby fan when I applaud the fact that the scrum half box kick obsession may just have been dealt a blow. Watson struggled more in one match than opposing wingers have in a whole year from the paintdrying practice currently employed.

Ambition- play at the gainline

One of the most striking aspects of the Wasps gameplay recently has been the impressive unpicking of midfield defences, as I can also see with Bristol, Munster, Toulouse and Clermont. It can be surely done at International level too as France will prove and Fiji and Japan continue to prove (ask Ireland and Scotland!). Imagine the crowds roar when this becomes the norm rather than the exception when forwards have exhausted Route 1 as well as bored themselves and the ‘crowd’ into submission.

South Africa

Whether it is the big 4 coming our way, or the B&I Lions Tour of S Africa (to discuss). It is clear that these giants of our game will be gracing the fields of Europe more regularly. What a prospect and how exciting to pitch against the World Champions, collective and individual.

Investment 

Back in home territory really! Rugby is a value stock. Great brand, opportunity to grow and no cash. Owners with big ideas and as with all individuals who have been involved in a start up, not the easiest people to deal with – and why should they be, as proud owners and serious passionate investors when the game was losing a fortune. Textbook style and the reason why CVC, SilverLake and MVM Holdings have in the recent days made their investment plans known. More to come I predict.

I am unashamedly seeing a cup half full here but will end on a sombre note.

The issue of dementia and concussion must be dealt with by a combination of acceptance, care for the many cases which exist and decisive action onfield and in training to fix the issues. Let us end the platitudes and see some action, without ever forgetting that physical risk is part of our game and every single player accepts that. Make this the number one priority can we?

Onward!

Thanks for reading,

Hallers 

Simon Halliday

I Can Feel It Coming In The Air Tonight – French Style


When I had dreams of being an England player aged 20 I went to France for my degree year, supposedly to teach but ended up working for the Forestry Commission in the Pyrenees. I trained at the local rugby club and it was there they taught me how to pass French style and to run into space. When I started to cut up defences the following year in England and Wales, I didn’t have the heart to say why. The French simply played a different game in those days under the influence of the great Pierre Villepreux and a summer of learning the hard way changed my outlook.

Can you sense what is coming down on the breeze now? A French effort into the 2023 World Cup which will recall the brilliance of a bygone era, and how we mourn the passing of Christophe Dominici who summed up the ‘style francaise’. Or in my time the likes of Mesnel, LaFond, St André and the peerless Sella and Blanco. In a match of crushing conservatism on Sunday, the slashing break of Jalibert and the weaving brilliance of Dulin in attack and defence are in fact the abiding memories.

Of course I felt the drama and loved the return of adrenaline to a rugby occasion. England found the way somehow and barely deserved it but there is no indication they are worried by that. Time to question the coach on tactics? I would and did often. The world class ability of Watson remains unfulfilled and he probably wished he had been substituted earlier. The best contribution from the outrageous talent of Slade was for the 79th minute pushover. Another issue is that the mind and body forgets after a while. When England moved wide they found Daly on a lateral run at half pace and lobbing the ball in Watson’s general direction.

Ford found a beautiful kick in minute 79 for the last line out and we rubbed eyes in disbelief. The rest is silence. However the decision is made and Eddie is clear about it – England keep winning and who complains other than the opposition and the media, who knows (or cares) about the crowd. Meantime the ball is a ‘ ticking time bomb’ according to our current stand off. My humble opinion is that the real underlying problem is at 12 because the talent out wide is undeniable.

The smiles on our face did get wider at the weekend as promised but it was Fiji who supplied the script as they provided a belated reminder at sodden Murrayfield that man for man they could be the best side on the planet. Even the Welsh provided some cheer with the back row running amok with the ball in hand. Oh and the Jalibert/Dulin show. Will they even play in the 6 Nations?

The only issue with making favourites of the French or the English is they seem not to relish the tag – ever. Whether they like it or not, they are currently two of the best sides in the world. Meantime an incredibly well rested Springbok squad will bide their time, although rather undercooked as the Lions start to prowl and come into view.

Thanks for reading,

Hallers 

Shooting Stars across a grey autumn Rugby Sky


Nobody quite knew how this new International tournament would pan out but between the Fiji débacle and a constantly buffering Amazon (in my household anyway) to date it has been a mixed and rather soggy bag with some spluttering fireworks alongside. I suspect that an anticipated England France dénouement will definitely whet the appetite.

I remember in the heydays at Bath, we were constantly criticised for conservative play and excessive concentration on defence and the riposte (not mine) was always that if the other side do not score we will always win. I remember being 40 points up with 15 minutes to go against a top side and spending the rest of the game tackling everything that moved to ensure that they remained scoreless. All this with a world class backline capable of unleashing havoc from any part of the pitch. So too for the double grand slam winning England team I was fortunate to be part of – it all sounds familiar reading the reaction in some quarters to England’s three games so far this autumn? 

I subscribe to the view that this England team intend never to be physically taken out again as they were in the World Cup Final. The hurt will remain until they get their revenge in 2023 – at least that must be the narrative. Last weekend’s match at Twickenham was therefore an intended exercise in physical masochism, almost cathartic.

England may not care that they played for most of the Ireland match without the ball because they knew that without Sexton, Ringrose, Larmour, Henshaw and Conway there was little to fear other than honest endeavour. I wonder about the Irish attack coaches explanation for their one track approach because it turned into a test of England’s tackling technique against a frontal assault, one they would never fail. Meantime two flashes of May brilliance sufficed to occupy the column inches and cause people to compare it to Chris Ashton’s length of the field effort versus Australia. Just for the record, there is no comparison. If you watch how May turned Chris Farrell inside out, burned him for pace and controlled the ball like Lio Messi for 50 yards then we will all understand just how good that was.

In the previous matches, a rainy night against Georgia was enlivened by Farrell’s slashing break and Young’s eye for a gap while a consummate piece of skill from Slade and Joseph against Italy was just enough for a TV audience on emergency rations. God only knows what Ollie Lawrence makes of it all who is now injured but probably more down to stiff joints due to inactivity.

Elsewhere, the outrageous talent of Vakatawa and Rattez with of course the irrepressible Dupont was enough against Scotland on another night for the purists, cue Wales/Georgia and Wales/Scotland. France look ominous if still unlikely to peak before 2023 rather than Saturday week.

Thought for the autumn – Has there ever been worse (intentional ) kicking at this level since the beginning of International Rugby?

It is certainly much tougher for International Rugby to play behind closed doors because of the inevitable lack of atmosphere but for a tournament that was replacing development tours and therefore laying the ground for youngsters to come through, we have all been left wishing for more ambition. 

On a brighter note let us welcome the belated Govt funding for the game. We even have some crowds set to return but the timing is as illogical as the original decision to impose a blanket ban. Enough said, the grey skies are lightening somewhat off the field and of course the Heineken Champions Cup hoves into view shortly with a cracking new format. Keep smiling!