Munster And Scarlets Get The Blues On Semi Final Day


I played for a Champion Club in the 80’s, the serially successful Bath who won multiple Knock Out cups and in fact never lost a semifinal or a Final. But there was always a regret that the public never saw the best of us. We often played well within ourselves even though winning the match.
 
The reason I start with that nostalgic look back is that the Champions Cup Semi Finals last weekend featured two sides who came out with their A game for the first half and utterly overwhelmed their highly rated opposition, who had themselves come storming into the last four on the back of superlative performances. That takes some doing. The pressure of a semifinal is legendary and both Leinster and Racing 92 dealt with it brilliantly.
 
Yes, Leinster I have called relentless and they are highly organised along national team lines – well they pretty much are the National team. But they played with a stunning combination of quality back play with forwards running at pace onto the outside shoulders of the defensive Scarlets line. Almost unstoppable on the day. Crucially, they spotted that the Welshmen were tentative early on in attack and their kicking game was off. Scarlets simply had to make a statement from the off and go in all guns blazing. When Leinster realised it wasn’t happening they imposed an immediate stranglehold and never let go.
 
In a sultry Bordeaux the following day, Racing 92 blew Munster away in the first 25 minutes and it was no fluke. They had observed that Munster defended very narrowly so they moved some of their quicker forwards into the outside channel and attacked mercilessly, especially on the righthand side where centre Nikitawa and International Wing Teddy Thomas ran riot. They didn’t even need Andreu on the other wing who was so outstanding against Clermont, and by the time Dan Carter came on the game was already won. Munster knew they would be allowed to play eventually as the French tired but the game was lost by then, even though Carter had to make two try saving tackles near the end. Had they kept in touch in the first half when penalty kicks were spurned and overlaps wasted then who knows?
 
I prefer to pay tribute to both Racing and Leinster for their stellar performances under great pressure than criticise either Munster or Scarlets who have played a huge part in the best tournament since the competition started so many years ago. They can be rightly proud but as so many other potential Champion Cup contenders have found out this year it has taken exceptional class under pressure to get through the various stages. I suspect more of the same to win it – on to the San Mames Stadium, Bilbao!
H.

‘Le’ Crunch Time For England


I should have known better than risk a visit to Murrayfield with a Scottish team ready to hand out a reminder to England and others that they are a sustainable force again in world rugby. No doubt about that, and it was in the way they won rather than just the result. A cloudless sky and not a breath of wind would not traditionally favour a Scottish team let us be honest. But by the end you had to imagine that they took so much more from the game in terms of their World Cup development.
For England it was both sobering and worrying that they lost key battles in the back row and midfield. All that Italian promise unconverted. The lack of quick front foot ball was one reason (analysed to death by the media but given the back row picked totally obvious) and a lack of leadership another, as in Ireland last year. You think back to a few games in which Eddie’s men have pulled the game out of the fire with some smart ‘finishing’ and it leaves you with that nagging doubt of a team flatlining not developing as expected. 
 
France will build themselves up for the England match by stoking the fires of hostility legendary in Brian Moore’s day when we came up against the full force not only of Gallic strong-arm tactics but unmatchable flair. Not much of the latter these days (except for Teddy Thomas), but they also defend well so England have to find a special inner strength which they say they have. We will see, and if Bastareaud’s new status as leader and line breaker – 18 carries went 34 metres against Italy! – is the benchmark then this is a game which surely carries no fears especially into the last 20 minutes when we know the French will be feeling the pace.
 
Has Ireland ever gone to Twickenham to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s day? That is a wild notion but entirely possible if they down the Scots this weekend – who themselves can lift the Six Nations title if certain results go their way. The word I am starting to use for Ireland is relentless, based on the Leinster model of holding the ball for minutes at a time. But this doesn’t look like a Grand Slam team to me, and a pumped up England team (especially if they lose to France) will be playing for their World Cup futures so become very difficult to beat.
 
Finally, Wales’ new open style will allow Italy to express themselves and they will look back at the Treviso performance against Scarlets in the Champions Cup and take heart.
 
The Six Nations has been true to predictions, wafer thin margins between defeat and victory. Wales could be unbeaten, so could France…… I sense more surprises to come but nothing which is really causing the All Blacks to reach for the smelling salts – yet.
H.

Club Watch


Wasps and Exeter played out a wonderfully competitive top of the table clash last Sunday, and if it had been another team Wasps could have scored 40. Exeter’s patient processes look less menacing now, while Wasps operate with pace and panache. Dan Robson is not required by England but remains an outstanding asset for his club as does the departing Guy Thompson NB.

Racing 92 look to have built a head of steam in the Top 14 as La Rochelle other title contenders were seen off comfortably at the U Arena on Sunday. Clermont have to win the Champions cup now to qualify for next year as they are so far back in the domestic league – the QuarterFinal against Racing is in many ways the tie of the round. Not one for the fainthearted!

Scarlets Breathe Fire Into The Champions Cup


I made a late decision to go to West Wales for the Scarlets Toulon match at the weekend because I had a feeling about it and also to support the stunning impact that Scarlets have had on the competition. With my birthplace just down the road and Llanelli the scene of many dramatic encounters when I was a player, I have a strong connection with the area!

What a sensational game it was, you had to be there to hear the passion of the sell out crowd who sing Welsh arias like no other and whose team played their dragon size hearts out to claim a home quarterfinal. This Champions Cup has not only come alive but scaled the heights in these pool stages with the climax this weekend past – and Scarlets will fancy that their style of play can challenge even the clear favourites Leinster. After some stunning interplay they had to withstand waves of Toulon attacks and their heroic defence showed its mettle, a key ingredient as a few other sides have found  out this year. The other newcomers La Rochelle  have lit the touch paper themselves this year, and will be unafraid to visit Parc y Scarlets. This quarterfinal will be epic.
 
Elsewhere, I pay credit to every team who had a sniff of a chance and gave it everything but fell short – Wasps, Bath, Ulster, Castres – and just as much to the likes of Glasgow, Harlequins, Northampton and Leicester (eventually) who played with much pride with nothing to go for. Anyone see Hogg’s performance against Exeter ?
 
Outside the tie of the round in Wales, Leinster v Saracens is as heavyweight as it comes and will not be for the fainthearted. Stuart Lancaster will see it as his biggest test yet, and no doubt the Aviva Stadium will be the venue. An International in everything but name and more besides given the status of past versus present Champions.
 
Is there a crisis in England, only one club represented? I was asked two years ago whether Celtic rugby would ever challenge Anglo-French domination again after the Saracens v Clermont final. Only English and French teams in the last 8 that year – I laughed out loud and suggested that Celtic Rugby may have a thing or two to say about that and look at them now! My answer is the same now for the English who will not be offering up excuses. It is true though that the Premiership, Champions/Challenge Cup and International schedule is bruising for the English players, witness all their injuries and the intensity of every game.  Scratched record time on some integrated thinking for the English game and everyone else because the injury count is unacceptable in that context.
 
In the Challenge Cup, I haven’t seen a much better game than at Gloucester on Friday night, where Pau justified their status with a comprehensive win and look very good value in a quarterfinal line-up featuring all the major nations including defending champions Stade Francais who actually lost their opening match against the Russians in Krasnoyarsk! Again, a wonderful mix of teams including Cardiff, Edinburgh and Connacht and it will take a mighty fine performance to win it this year.
 
As we take a breath and look to the Six Nations, Eddie felt compelled to defend the underperforming English clubs – and to be fair, players too – suggesting that this is no guide to International performance. Maybe not, but it does not help. I suspect that the Welsh and the Irish would like to bottle what their regions have served up and deliver it straight onto the International table. If only life was so simple …… ask Saracens, who live to fight another day but it was close and they will have to do it the hard way this year, starting in Dublin. Bring on April!
H.

Pool Stages Reach Crescendo In Europe


Tadgh Beirne and Jordan Larmour are two names you may never have heard of but by 2019 you definitely will have – the Scarlets second rower and Leinster Full Back could well become stars of the next World Cup. A measure of Ireland’s strength in depth and the reason that they are just as much a threat to the All Blacks as England.

 The feature of last weeks European Rugby was the sheer uncertainty of who will progress to the knock out stages. When combined with some magical games of top quality, it was a weekend to remember. The sheer diversity of the performances made the chairman very happy. Newcastle, Cardiff, Pau, Connacht and Gloucester have stormed into the QuarterF inals and with an automatic place on offer in the Champions Cup all these sides will be giving it full throttle in April.
 
In the Champions Cup, only one side guaranteed of progress – Leinster, was a dream scenario leading up to Round 6 and 14 teams with a chance of making the KO stages. You had to pinch yourself to see Scarlets unravelling Bath on their home ground. Llanelli v Bath was once one of the titanic club games in the calendar, playing for the Rag Doll, and an updated version of the Doll was being flourished by ecstatic Scarlets players as they destroyed a side who had everything to play for. Anthony Watson will not have enjoyed being sidestepped by Tadgh Beirne en route to possibly the try of the season but it was a comment on the stunning play of the Welshmen. Oh for the Wales National team to play with a similar style – it is the only way they will carry off the Six Nations.
 
Elsewhere, it is manifestly clear that the ambition required to succeed at these rarefied levels is unprecedented. Wasps were irresistible in a must win game v Harlequins only to be reeled in by Marcus Smith and his suddenly energised back line who played their own brand of unstoppable pace rugby. Racing threw everything at Munster in the match of the round in the wonderful U Arena in Paris, their narrow win adding to the list of wannabes for the next stages. While not seeing any obvious saviours for the French team, in Munster colours the dazzling Keith Earls caught the eye constantly. Ironically, Donnacha Ryan showed his former team that age is just a number with an amazing performance of passion and yes pace. U Arena with its covered roof, stunning technology, a constant blur of sound and light, all round luxurious seating and pitch view has set a new benchmark for club rugby.
 
So, a weekend of clashes to jangle the rugby nerves that seems unprecedented to me for any tournament anywhere anytime.
 
Who wants to be the Champion, we will find out a little more by Monday!!

Hallers Christmas Blog


As the Autumn Internationals played out, followed by two tumultuous European weekends, there has been much to admire as well as ponder as we approach a seasonal period of rest and reflection – unless you are a professional rugby player who isn’t banned or injured in which case not much of either. 

First the good news – I was asked two years ago whether I was concerned about the Irish amid the Anglo-French dominance in the Champions Cup and I suggested they would be back sooner than anyone thought – so it proved. First they provided two semifinalists last year. Then, two weeks ago, a fully refreshed Leinster took the English Champions Exeter down on their own ground and resisted their best efforts the following week. Munster under Rassie Erasmus has injected pace and power into their youngsters and their toothless semifinal against Saracens is a distant memory after their double over Leicester. A compelling set of performances by Ulster could pay dividends, and meantime Connacht is unbeaten in the Challenge Cup. A ruthless Autumn series has left Ireland looking at Twickenham with real confidence and while the Calcutta Cup is going to be tumultuous, England v Ireland will be something else again.

You could argue that the performance of the French team in the Autumn was nothing short of disastrous but they are in good shape in Europe, sporting their multinational squads. A rejuvenated Clermont look dominant and the rising star of La Rochelle have illuminated the competition, while Montpellier and Racing 92 lurk dangerously. I love the look of Rounds 5 and 6 with Toulon, Bath and Scarlets all in the hunt in their pool.

As for the English, I presume Eddie Jones finalised his extra squad members this Autumn because little else was established than Daly’s star quality. At the club level  some signs of mid season tiredness but there is no margin for error in Europe.

More worryingly… here we are again, and whether accidental or deliberate the number of damaging head contacts continues apace. Donnacha Ryan, an influential International name, has called it ‘a blight on the game’ and calls for action. In my opinion tackling targeted above the shoulders could be called automatically yellow and possibly red with a minimum six week ban. Then people will stop doing it. The only thing about the game that is going soft is in the coaching diktat which demands high tackling to stop the offload. Plain wrong.

Do I need to mention the clear out again? Ask Faletau how he feels about his knee ligament injury caused by exactly that by Mathieu Basteraud

To end on a positive and festive note however, the Northern Hemisphere rugby world is buzzing at most levels and the Rugby Club Christmas parties and carol-singing will be in fine voice.

To anyone who is still reading my piece at the end of a long but fulfilling year, thank you for that, and my New Year hopes and fears will be with you well before the old year rings out.

A Merry and peaceful Christmas to you all.

H

TACKLING NOT ALWAYS A PAINFUL ISSUE


The season to date has been a revelation in some ways. Players are running out of contact and into space with short intensive bursts of passing. The All Blacks have shown the way – again – and have lit a touch paper. Take a look at Lyon of the Top 14 and Newcastle in their opening matches.  Two unfancied teams with few stars are winning home and away with some panache. I used to call it passing out of the tackle, but even Will Greenwood is presenting a programme devoted to the offload as it is now called, and as if it is some new strategy. No, what is clear is that the attritional tactic of ‘round the corner’ popping or phase play has been rumbled. Too boring, too many injuries and unsuccessful. Long may it continue, but a rerun to videos of the past will show that the practice was alive and well until Rugby League defence and attack coaches got in the way.

Pin point passing from midfield is also developing nicely, as Toomua of Leicester has shown to date and as the Scarlets are demonstrating as a team. Their status as Pro 12 Champions last year was no fluke and they will fancy their chances in the Champions Cup this year. Cruden now at Montpellier could make even Francois Steyn look like a master centre and make a powerhouse team even more unstoppable. I have seen the throwback from a bygone era, Gavin Henson, playing with such sublime handing skills that some people are thinking of a Wales recall. He is certainly the flip side of Jamie Roberts, but if the Scarlets style of play is adopted neither of them are needed.

Being simply able to pass out of contact is welcome and due to the fact that  defences are having to throttle back on the double tackle or even the high tackle. Too many yellow or red cards and stacks of injuries. The tackling technique of the modern professional player is reckless and prone to cause serious damage on both sides. There’s nothing tough about it, simply foolhardy and senseless. Who is teaching these crazy techniques? Stand up all defence coaches who are often pictured brooding in the background and growling with pleasure when a big hit goes in. Well we have had enough and by the looks of it so have the players.

By all means place a line across the shirt and then the player will know if his tackle rides up the body he could be in trouble. In addition, ban the clear out. How many more times? Then the injury count will reverse as players will realise its a very healthy option as will the coaches.

In my role as Chairman of EPCR, I have the benefit of travelling through Europe and discussing rugby issues of the days with Presidents, Owners, Administrators, Coaches and players. They all have valuable views but they are rarely combined.

The general health of players has hit the headlines, distressingly, because of record numbers of injuries. In addition to poor tackling technique and increased physicality, this is all linked in to how many games they play in a cluttered season, and not just that how much time they spend training or in a gym. Forget that the Lions trained three times in a day – because the day was there perhaps – look at what a traditional week’s training looks like at a professional club, called a ‘day at the office’.

Consider the International season, Six Nations and Autumn Internationals, plus summer tours, Lions tours and the Rugby World Cup. Then the domestic season, be it the Premiership, Pro 14 or the Top 14 in France. Finally, the blue riband European tournaments, the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. Divide them into the weeks of the year and throw in a mandated rest period and you have the problem right in front of you.

The assets, or players, are rented out for money to the Unions – in some cases – or are owned by both Unions and leagues. They also have a voice.

Why do the key people in this debate not sit round a large table and work out a compromise, before we really do some damage off the field as well as what is happening on the field.

Can anyone think of a ready made group who could discuss this and make some good decisions? I can.

H.