Isn’t it strange how a few weeks can change everything. Despite the brilliant weather of the Rugby World Cup turning to depressing gloom, matching the mood of the signal failure of England to exit their pool,there has been a wind of change sweeping through the English domestic game. I felt that there would be a backlash of frustration and there has been,plus justified protestations by a stream of Premiership coaches and players that things just aren’t that bad.
At the 1987 World Cup, when England suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of Wales (sound familiar?!), there were many players who never pulled on the shirt again and a number of coaches who departed the scene for good. Yet only 12 months later a thrilling win over Australia signalled England’s return to the top table of rugby, and presaged two Grand Slams and a World Cup Final. Many of the same players featured, but with a few fresh faces, an entirely different culture and a new unfettered style of playing. Not dissimilar to the 1999 failure at the Q-final stages against South Africa, out of which came the eventual 2003 triumph.
Other rugby nations must be rocking with laughter at the sometimes self piteous attitude of the English public, management, coaches and staff. Excuses abound and fingers are pointed.
It’s all so different now after a string of stunning English performances in the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. Saracens, Exeter, Leicester and Wasps are in stellar form and offering up multiple player choices to Eddie, especially in some problem areas. And in the Challenge Cup, Harlequins, Gloucester and Sale are in rude health. I suspect, however, that our newest coach, with his assistants being assembled in somewhat hectic fashion from various Premiership clubs, will not be the kid in the candy shop but will make some key decisions and stick with them. For anyone who thought that there was any merit in keeping the old coaching staff, the various mistakes made in selection, strategy and tactics should have rendered that argument obsolete. Jones is absolutely correct to start with a clean sheet.
He has already started to manipulate the press rather than the incestuous love-in so favoured by Stuart Lancaster – it’s the way it should be and ironically the way they like it too! We are led to believe Hartley will be captain, and if the one thing it stops is the self interested gossip of the previous squad then that’s a good start, and a sign of hard edge in the England game. Added to the impressive and hard hitting Dave Attwood, even better. I make one point, however, which is that England’s running game up front hardly existed in the World Cup, and both Jamie George and Tom Youngs are way better in that department than Hartley. Given George Kruis and Maro Itoje are making strong claims for England’s line out then I know where my vote would go.
A word on Borthwick. Tactician he is and a master at that, inspirational he is not – another reason that Eddie needs to find his experienced Lieutenants on the field to generate some raw and hard headed attitude. A place even for Haskell if he can run straight and start passing more. Launchbury for blindside flank? Wasps think so, and Nathan Hughes will be a huge asset for England when eligible.
In the backs, the picture is less clear. Bath’s dramatic loss of form may well hurt Ford, Watson and Joseph, who look a little bereft as their pack fail to supply any meaningful front foot ball. Meantime Elliot Daly has in my mind cemented a place in a new England squad for the longterm after a string of stunning performances at the heart of the Wasps season so far. He has the running and kicking game we haven’t seen in an England centre for a very long time, and I think he could become truly world class. I loved Jack Nowell’s all court performance against Clermont the other week, but theres something a little utility about him which may extend as far as the bench but no further – his experience over the weekend versus Clermont at their place hinted as much. Outside all that, no new trends have appeared. Eddie Jones won’t have unearthed any surprises – he simply has to sift the emotional wreckage of a poor World Cup showing and make his bets. I don’t envy him – mischievously there is a growing view that Farrell has turned himself into a running, creative fly half. Saracens are playing that well with him as the play maker, and in my book he definitely starts for England at 10 right now. I await the howls of dismay at that comment but it’s well justified!
Finally, the two European competitions are simmering nicely. Defending champs Toulon are slowly shifting the gears, their third twenty minutes against Leinster showing a ruthless streak and a statement of intent. Racing look ominous and will take some stopping while Wasps’ dismantling of Bath on their home patch suggests that they can beat anyone on their day. Both Glasgow and Edinburgh remain in contention in their respective competitions, a boost for Scotland as they lick their lips for a Murrayfield clash against England in February. That really can go either way and will be no place for the fainthearted. Scottish pain has been incubated over a 25 year period, and any reader of my emails will know that I have been calling this revival for a while.
In Ireland, Connacht are best placed having survived an ordeal in sub zero Siberia, and Ulster confirmed that Toulouse face some serious rebuilding despite a clutch of well-known names in their line up. Anno Domini.
Scarlets lead the Pro 12 and have bombed in the European Cup, an interesting statistic but borne of their lack of depth and injury list. This is an issue for the tournament undoubtedly, as it is for Cardiff Blues. Ospreys are playing great rugby and have every chance of reaching the quarter finals in a tough pool, while Newport Gwent Dragons may well be the surprise package of the Challenge Cup, alongside Connacht. However, they will both have their work cut out to prevent the Quins or Gloucester from marching to the title. Remember the winner gets direct access to the Champions Cup this year, and this seems a logical outcome every year… hmm.
I was in Clermont on Sunday for their revenge match against the in-form Exeter, a proud European heritage under threat and you could feel the tension. 19,000 raucous fans in Stade Marcel Michelin, a riot of colour and sound, and in a rugby mad city recalling tribal days of the West Country giants in amateur times. Their performance was full of quality and passion; this is indeed a super club but with a sense of family and true bonds between officials, players and supporters. Exeter, who are young pretenders, were put firmly in their place but they will come again because their drums literally beat to the same tune as Clermont’s and the crowd could recognise it too. The away side’s supporters were singing for their team long after the final whistle amidst the festive celebrations of the Clermont faithful. I felt proud to be part of this great competition.
So, 2015 draws to a close with hopes and aspirations at a high level for many, despite the rigours of a long and brutal season a lingering cloud which will be increasingly high on the agenda.
On balance though, we have all been uplifted by a surge of interest in rugby at all ages which is a great way to go into 2016.
Happy Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Buon Natale!