It seemed as if the elation of the 2015 Rugby World Cup would transition seamlessly into the domestic and European challenges ahead, an exciting prospect with many of the worlds best players congregating at Europe’s clubs.
Instead, our whole way of life was put to the test with the Paris Atrocities,happening to coincide with the first weekend of the Champions and Challenge Cup.You can never predict how society will react in the face of such a challenge. The Stade de France, home of French Rugby, was one of the targeted areas in Paris, and caused everyone to think twice about big gatherings of people such as sporting events.
What a reality check for us all, but it was uplifting to see how rugby responded to these tragedies.
As it happened, I was due to be in Paris that fateful Saturday but instead diverted to the Saracens Toulouse match due to the cancellation of the Racing/Glasgow match. Toulouse, along with Agen and La Rochelle who also had fixtures in England, decided to play. The Saracens did them and the occasion proud, playing the Marseillaise after a minutes silence. They were much less charitable on the pitch,looking ominous and full of strong intent. They haven’t lost this season and some key players are in prime form, notably Farrell and Jamie George. The former England U 20 Captain,Maro Itoje, was highly impressive and will surely be part of Eddie Jones’ brave new world,possibly in quite a senior position.
All around the UK and in France, the values of égalité, liberté, fraternité were blazoned across sporting stadiums along with the tricolore. Rugby played its part in joining with the French in a message of solidarity.
Understandably the French clubs have had a hesitant start, clearly distracted. However,Racing 92 looked ominous against the Scarlets and no-one will be writing off Clermont or Toulon, despite the latter’s pasting at Wasps. Talking of which, there was a big marker laid down by some quality English pretenders to Eddie Jones’ brave new world.I have been writing up Elliott Daly for two years or more now, surely his skills will be recognised, as with Jo Simpson, along with Danny Care the most naturally gifted scrum halves in England right now.
The surprise package of the season so far is clearly Connacht who lead the Pro 12 and have won both their Challenge Cup matches,including a marathon trip to Siberia to play the newest ‘European’ entrant, a Russian club called Enisei-STM. We all remember the coldest days on rugby pitches but not minus 20 degrees which was at times the match day temperature! However, their Russian adventure has clearly done them the power of good, and their recent away win at Munster has announced them as a clear force in Irish Rugby.Its very exciting and I look forward to seeing more of them, they play a very exciting brand of rugby.
Its early days in Europe and in general the Pro 12 clubs have some ground to make up,while the English have hit the ground running for the first time in years,good to see although many of their top players are of course quite fresh, and were I suspect rather frustrated… meantime the French have made a slow start but will always be in the mix given their strength in depth,boosted by World Cup stars.Incidentally the 20 or so foreign star imports from the RWC will do nothing but good for the tournament and the spectacle. Highly unlikely by the way to deprive a homegrown player of their chance, not least because clubs are having to rotate their squads aggressively given the intensity of the fixture schedule, so everyone gets a chance.
Lastly, what of Eddie Jones? I have never met him, therefore cannot judge other than to admire his CV and his philosophy. He has a glut of fine players to consider. Look no further than Saracens, Leicester, Bath , Quins, Northampton, Exeter and Wasps – there is a quality 15 sitting there waiting to be picked and thats before you sift through the other 5 clubs who all have their young pretenders! Give them some direction and then unleash. It should be an angry group of players with plenty to prove. I would love to be coming into this situation as a player – written off as a team, its upside only all the way to Japan.
I cannot finish without my own tribute to the great Jonah Lomu. I never played against him but he travelled over from New Zealand to play in the Help for Heroes Match in 2008 at Twickenham, to raise awareness of the plight of wounded and injured soldiers returning from active service. He damaged a foot in training and couldn’t play, but his presence was enough. We felt humbled then as I do now in acknowledging the greatness and humility of one of the greatest rugby players to have pulled on an International shirt. RIP Jonah.