In the middle of a landmark rugby season, the focus has suddenly shifted to a world of regulation,concussion awareness and mid term law changes. Injuries have dominated the landscape, not least for some of England’s top forwards as we approach the 6 Nations. Amid the distinctly unseasonal turmoil and some winter gloom, there was a light shining at the Stade Yves du Manoir which made you celebrate the values of a great game on and off the field.
While we remember the uplifting performances of Munster and Ireland in the aftermath of Anthony Foley’s untimely death, Racing 92 reinforced the lasting tributes paid to this great man of rugby. They and their supporters had contacted Munster over the festive period, offering free board and lodging for Munster fans who wished to travel to Paris for the rearranged fixture. Then their squad went through their pre match routines wearing a red jersey with No 8 on their backs, and Jacky Lorenzetti their quixotic owner appeared in the main committee area sporting the same. It was deeply humbling and all in the presence of the Irish Ambassador to France. Grand Chapeau to the Racing Club for their consideration and understanding.
After a minute’s applause the match started and Munster’s new found confidence shone through from the start. There was only one outcome, acknowledged by Racing implicitly who had put some of their younger talent on display. They will be crucial to re-energise their domestic season to ensure Champions Cup rugby next year.
While in Paris, I was treated to a visit to the new home of Racing 92, a permanently covered stadium which has a capacity of 40,000 and rumoured to be the most technologically advanced in the world. It opens in October, and together with the eagerly anticipated confirmation of Bath’s new Colosseum-style stadium it bears witness to the development of ‘ destination rugby ‘ all around Europe.The confirmed desire of Bilbao and Newcastle, traditional football strongholds, to host next year’s European Rugby Finals adds more weight to the claim.
Back to Europe, and it seems that Leinster, Munster and Glasgow at least of the Celtic names will be eyeing the knockout stages of the Cup after last year’s lull. I said at the time that the Rugby World Cup impacted them disproportionately given their severely depleted squads, and that both English and French clubs were playing to a different tune after their calamitous World Cup performances. This has been borne out, and I for one am delighted to see the spread of performance across Europe, with the Ospreys in irresistible form in the Challenge Cup.
In England, two top table clashes were intriguing in their own way. Wasps like all teams who espouse attacking rugby also let their opponents play, but they remain the most compelling side in Europe to watch along with Clermont, Leinster and Glasgow. Leicester Tigers has begun a painful process of rebuild but it is necessary to keep up with the new order. Down the road in Allianz Park we saw the best and worst of things. Wonderful resilience by a Saracens squad under severe injury pressures and a red carded man down, who just held on against a resurgent Exeter who almost achieved another great away win on the road after the Bath victory. Still, 6 points is a top return from two away matches though it has all come too late for European hopes. On the flip side, an unconscious Geoff Parling was carried off the pitch after a rarely seen double head tackle, and four other concussion incidents weighed heavy on the contest. A litany of coaches and ex players have complained that the game is going soft and the public will lose interest if cards keep being handed out.
My response is simple. As a player you have a choice to tackle high or low. By the way, tall forwards can surely bend their body to tackle low so less of that nonsense that they cannot – or else it’s back to pilates. If a player slips into a tackle, then yes the referee will have the common sense and the technology to see it and adjudicate accordingly. Bottom line, if players don’t learn, the red and yellow cards will flow until they do and rightly so. In the old days by the way, head hits led to red spillage of other sorts from retaliatory action as everyone saw it as the cheapest shot possible along with stamping in the ruck. Not to mention that current practice has rendered the contact area highly dangerous if not monitored closely. Brad Barritt had the good grace to send a note of apology to Geoff Parling who will no doubt be out of the game for a few weeks now.
This weekend, a whole number of key matches approach in the latter pool stages of European competition. For some it is a matter of pride, for others a path to test themselves at the top end of World club rugby. In all cases, a combination of ambition and self discipline will be the defining factors.