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,