Anyone who thought that there would be a World Cup hangover for rugby in Europe has been very much mistaken, as the Round 6 weekend of the Champions and Challenge Cup demonstrated. It was a quite stunning reminder of the tribal attitudes that are generated by the top clubs in Europe in these competitions, as well as unforeseen drama and uncertainty right down to the last minute. However, there have undoubtedly been laggards in all this, who either collectively or individually have struggled to make an impact.
Where to start? The high-flying Harlequins were taught a lesson by a fired up and heavyweight Montpellier, whose collection of world stars, while not in Toulon’s league, were more than a match for a team flooded with England players keen to maintain their momentum, even if already qualified. Perhaps Trinh-Duc’s return from injury will find him some consideration for the National team eventually – his skill has never been in doubt.
Then we saw the truly impressive dismantling of Leinster by a Wasps side who have that priceless capability to move up a gear when they need to – so far mainly in Europe, but their recent win at Northampton indicates this could yet be the team of the season. In topping the pool, they condemned Toulon to an away match at in-form Racing, after their third last minute win of the tournament against a Bath team looking as if they are slowly dragging themselves into the season. However, Europe is no place to ‘find yourself’ as Glasgow and the Irish provinces have discovered. There is a distinct feeling that the Irish may have a middling year at both national and provincial level. I do not share in the panic here – it is a tribute to their outperformance over the last few years and a record that puts the likes of England and its Premiership to shame. With limited resource and key players injured, they simply don’t have the depth. Try telling them all this with Wales coming to Dublin – there should be no greater incentive; this contest will be a real marker for the tournament.
The other real highlights were in Pool 2, where all four clubs could have ended on 16 points. Bordeaux showed they are no pushover and the Ospreys are on their way back as a serious European contender, with Wyn-Jones comfortably the world’s best lock in my opinion and Biggar not far behind at 10. They really should have gone through after all their hard work on the road in France, but this was ignoring the team of the season so far, Exeter. Their ‘squad’ selection for the Bordeaux match had raised eyebrows but their dramatic bonus point win over Ospreys suddenly catapulted them to the top of the Pool, as Clermont failed to kick a simple penalty for a crucial losing bonus point against Bordeaux. Leave the fact that they should have won at home – how could they not have known?! Well, it took 20 mins after the matches were finished to work out the Pool winner, leading to unconstrained joy at Sandy Park and total desolation at the Stade Marcel-Michelin. However, Clermont is a giant of European Rugby and they will be back for sure, and Morgan Parra was only the fall guy in the end.
Finally, let me mention one name: James Short, Exeter Winger. If there is a better balanced runner in England I have not seen him. He has everything, and when an Exeter committee man suggested the high ball was his weakness, he collected as contested a high ball as I have seen all year. At 26 he is no youngster but if he keeps on like this, then a Henry Slade, James Short, Jack Nowell, Sam Hill, Olly Devoto (from Bath) quintet may soon be an England squad reality.
Is there a point to make about the Quarter Finalists? Saracens, Leicester, Exeter and Wasps. Clearly four of the leading clubs in Europe so no quarrel there. Racing 92 and Toulon speak for themselves, although Toulon will not have any leeway against the form side in the competition. Stade Francais have undoubtedly benefited from the ten point benefit of playing Benetton Treviso – a talking point for another time. As current French Champions they have the ability, no doubt, and are dangerous – their spiky win over the Tigers has resulted in a return match at Welford Road. That contest will not be for the fainthearted and therefore compelling viewing. Northampton will be outsiders as their domestic form is so sketchy; another team which simply hasn’t come together.
The fact that its an Anglo-French lineup is simply a coincidence, with Ulster and Ospreys on the cusp and Glasgow seemingly suffering a terrible World Cup hangover. Any of the three could have made it, or all of them! The outcome here is simply a product of constant form and a healthy dose of ambitious play. The Quarter Finals are definitely something to savour for the second week in April, with all the heavyweights involved.
Automatic qualification to the Champions Cup has added some spice to the Challenge Cup, and it’s way too close to call. There’s a great mix of clubs in there from across the nations in the last eight. If I had to make a bet it would be Montpellier or Harlequins, with Connacht an outsider…!
The Six Nations hoves into view now, following a lightweight domestic weekend, and it’s the most uncertain tournament in years. To whet your appetite here is a mini preview…
It feels like they will have a year of rebuilding, but there’s an opportunity for young stars to emerge, and they do have three home matches. I feel that Jonny Sexton needs six months off (a la Carter) as he looks stale and a little vulnerable. I don’t think there is much expectation but never write off an Irish team with so much recent Six Nations success.
A shocking 6 Nations track record, but the ideal start against the ‘Auld Enemy’ to put that right. They will look for a big start and will provide a physical challenge but their route to victory will come through their newly found open play. Will they have the courage, I wonder, and can Stuart Hogg find some form? Eddie Jones has dragged them into a war of words, to take the pressure off his squad. I have played four times at Murrayfield and Scotland were always very competitive. Recent England teams have found it easy, but this time will be different and holds the key to Scotland’s season.
Zero expectation means there is only upside but I cannot see from where. Which will probably mean they win the Grand Slam! Seriously though, I find it difficult to make even half a prediction. One assumes a win first up (against Italy) – let’s wait and see what that team looks like and then call it from there!
New coaches coming, both national and regional. It won’t make a difference this year, but is badly needed and the Six Nations / World Rugby really have to get involved and help here. The current situation for the national team and their two Flagship clubs needs addressing. And fast.
Clearly the strongest squad, and they are dangling a carrot of more open play. They can do it – witness their try against England in the World Cup. Perhaps they should pick a scrum half on the wing! Let’s wait and see, because they won’t win in either Dublin or London if they play narrow. Jamie Roberts should preserve his body and throw some early wide passes from time to time! Joking apart, Wales could win a Grand Slam if they give full vent to their talent and stay injury-free. Like all the Celtic nations, they have limited resource and will be impacted disproportionately by injuries.
I hesitate to say that I have left the best ’til last! On the face of it, not that many personnel changes, and a team picked specifically to beat Scotland. What a wonderful game Jonathan Joseph will have, given that the best centre in Europe currently – Elliot Daly – is cooling his heels on the sidelines. He is surely certain to play in the next match. Courtney Lawes will also consider himself lucky assuming he is fit, given that the irrepressible Itoje presses a mighty claim.
In the limited time he has had, Eddie Jones is trying to create a different mindset, unravelling much of the past. Quite right – tactics, selection and leadership are key – all weaknesses of the previous management. The theme is pace – watch for Danny Care running into the middle on the loop, rapid, short passing and blindside wingers much more involved. Up front I worry that Marler, Cole, Haskell and Robshaw lack the pace required but for now it may suffice. Especially as he wants a snarling, aggressive set of forwards to put down a marker.
The mindset is important – the great double Grand Slam team of the early ’90s was basically the same group of under performers of the mid ’80s with a different view and ambition. Same with our RWC winners of 2003, who were turned into world beaters by Woodward, driven by a state of mind which became highly focussed and with a ‘no excuses’ mentality, mainly after three failed attempts at a Grand Slam!
I have said so many times that a properly prepared, professional England side can clean up in the Six Nations. It is also an interminable joy for every other nation to make sure they fail!
All in all, the Rugby World remains in a state of high excitement – let’s hope for some clement weather and some great drama in the weeks ahead.