Rugby Warriors step up in Europe while Dark Clouds Gather Elsewhere

Hi all, you may have thought I have been in a lull in terms of rugby musings, but if you look on my Linked In you will see the reverse is true! Anyway…

I have been very partisan in my views that exceptional quality is on offer in the Champions and Challenge Cups of European Rugby. Luckily Jake White, one of the world’s best coaches, endorsed this in claiming that the tournament is comparable to Test match rugby, and you can add a sense of tribalism for added spice. Many of the opening pool matches this year have been quasi International clashes, and Gregor Townsend fuelled the fire by talking up the Glasgow Warriors/Leicester Tigers clash as a confrontation on a global scale. The Warriors certainly delivered as did, sensationally, the Saracens.

You could argue that last year got lost a little in the glut of test match rugby dominated by the Rugby World Cup. Not to say that there weren’t some titanic struggles in the tournament – Toulon/Wasps, Exeter/Clermont spring to mind and the Lyon Finals were a triumph. Players and clubs were however condemned to an interminable season, impossibly tough matches following one after the other. It was too much, other than for England, Saracens, Connacht, Montpellier and Racing 92 who found ways to win against variable and often weary opposition.

I have also said that previous winning formulas are no longer good enough as standards rise. The Irish have found that out, as have Leicester and Toulon among others. How that came true this past weekend! In the opener, Glasgow Warriors simply played at a pace and intensity which demolished a Leicester team which has precious little time to tighten up its defence with Munster and Racing 92 to come. Watch out for Henry Pyrgos, who controlled the Glasgow attack and must surely play first choice for Scotland. It was a stunning match and the chant ‘ We are Warriors’ echoed around the ground as a statement of intent by the home side.

Talking of pace and intensity, I join the rest of the rugby world in applauding the All Blacks. They have in my opinion gone back to time honoured values – supreme basic skills under pressure, running into space and keeping the ball alive by passing out of the tackle, relentless without the ball and urgent with it. No rocket science but anathema to some of our Northern Hemisphere players and coaches.

Why the preamble? You could find something resembling those skills in Saracen’s performance versus Toulon. The passing and running of the Saracens forwards were something to behold as was the supreme performance of Farrell. It was intensity mixed with creativity, a potent mix. There are at least 7 first choice England players to be inked in on that team sheet , and Jamie George is undoubtedly one of them. Tough one for Eddie given his current Captain, but I am assuming he would like to take down the All Blacks in 2018 and there will be no compromise.

I have said that previous winners of the Champions Cup will find that their best is no longer good enough and Saracens is proving that standards are still rising. It amuses me that people criticise them for being boring as they get better and better. The same accusation was levelled at the great Bath teams of the 80’s and 90’s who simply set out their stall to win, either playing directly or with width and skill. It was a question of choice, we were quite capable of ripping teams to pieces especially if they had opinions about themselves. Saracens aren’t just there to be beaten, they are there to make themselves unbeatable and if they choose to play through the middle and out wide then they do. Impressive so far.

Elsewhere, excellent wins for Leinster and Connacht lifted Irish spirits only for rugby to be plunged into mourning by the untimely death of Munster’s legendary Anthony Foley. I pay tribute to him as one of Irish rugby’s favourite sons, and of course Munster and Foley epitomise European club rugby. He will be missed but never forgotten, the world of rugby will make sure of that.

It was not a great weekend for the Top 14 French clubs, but late on Sunday leaders Clermont reminded us that they are a potent force by despatching Exeter with some style and élan, recalling some of their best moments in Europe. They will have a say this year I feel.

Lastly, concussion has taken centre stage again with Shane William’s frank comments about his suffering following on from a degree of press coverage, and more players have since retired citing concussion problems. That ball is rolling and the momentum must be maintained in terms of making proactive changes. The challenge is that talk is cheap and while studies are welcomed it is prevention that matters.

Before I end, the other dark clouds to which I refer in the title are those of a South African hue. I have been warning for a while that something would have to give, with plunging audiences, falling standards and mass player defection to other clubs around the world. Their capitulation in the last 20 minutes against the All Blacks was shocking to watch. I have no doubt that pride will be the key when they face England, but it is sad to see them in such disarray, and I feel that action will be taken soon to effect a restructuring. World Rugby may think this is just a cyclical moment but I suspect not. Watch that space!