European Club Finals An Exceptional Showcase As Gamechanging Decisions Loom Large


Was it really 6 weeks ago that Saracens took their game to new levels by shutting out Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup Final. It was a ruthless show of how to close out a pressure game from behind – a true International game in club jerseys. All played out in a sporting hotbed that was Newcastle. The irony of their relegation showed the dysfunction in the game nationwide. The North needs top class rugby not relegation and bankruptcy, Yorkshire Carnegie now effectively bust. Benign neglect in the case of the latter, so unacceptable when even limited vision could have changed this outcome.

Another International clash as Glasgow Warriors stormed the Leinster stronghold for the Pro 14 Crown and only just failed despite the strongest challenge. I have called the Scottish revival for a while and it is real and vibrant. They have finally got it right off the field and look what happens. A World Cup surprise could await – replay the second half of the England game if you doubt me. Meantime a just return for the Irishmen and if you think they are a busted flush, listen to the intent in Sexton’s rebuttal that they have peaked too early. I like that language, they will come again.

The Premiership Final was a triumph – Gallagher must have been smiling. On field The Cheifs did everything right other than the last 20 minutes. The great Bath teams never lost that piece of the game, and Sarries provided their own masterclass. Liam Williams pound for pound is the best player in the world currently and the performance of the Saracens big names in the closing stages was truly remarkable. England genuinely have no excuses in Japan……when you add in the exceptional Slade and Nowell at Twickenham the crowd were thrilled like at no other time in the last 12 months. I truly love the Chiefs and the next step is to turn the hurt into big wins.

Finally an error strewn Top 14 Final could not take away the shining rays of hope streaming from the Toulousains – their supporter chant is wonderfully threatening and meaningful, their squad and club are going places, and not just in France. Cheslin Kolbe is already one of the world’s best as a game changer, what a talent! A word also for Clermont who are a wonderful rugby family and that is it really – the best rugby families are winning now despite their Stade de France disappointment. It’s culture not just training, process and grimfaced physicality.

With Europe in mind, the scrap in the last couple of league weekends to make it into Europe shows the order of things in a good place – Montpellier, Sale, Bath, Ospreys were all smiling at the end.

Lastly, by the end of week the rugby world will know how the game may or may not change for both hemispheres. Big meetings are in train. I do not think that the world’s administrators need any further reminders of the growing jewels in our club game, attracting huge crowds as destination rugby takes hold. I say embrace this because it’s not going away, only becoming stronger. Entirely complimentary to an International game where ‘less is more’ as we were told by the CEO of World Rugby himself. As for the money, it is all about allocation and clear thinking, always has been. Step forward some clear thinkers please.

Very finally, some strong words at the beginning of the season on disciplinary matters finally got through and changes are making our game safer. If that is work in progress, we should ignore at our peril the issues for all our players worldwide. The pathway to a sustainable post career life is full of potholes and it has to change. My question is for rugby’s leaders – what are you doing for the players? In a world of investment, media interest, global trends, do NOT treat the player as a wasting asset. Or else they will become exactly that and we cannot allow it.

Let us meantime celebrate the season, and look forward with excitement to Japan – the game is on the rise no doubt and we must all harness the growth – at every level.

Scottish Rugby In Bloom For The 6 Nations?


It may have appeared that Round 6 of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup was confirming known truths about Irish dominance and the resurgence of Toulouse as well as a brooding Saracens who look very tough and menacing at full strength. The real story though is for Edinburgh and Glasgow in the last 8 and if results play out then even a Scottish finalist!

Before I bring out my McIntosh Tartan in acknowledgement of such a feat, a quick reality check as the twin threats of Munster and Saracens stand in their way. Regardless, what eye watering quarter finals we have, including the two form teams in France Racing 92 and Toulouse who confront each other in the magnificent U Arena in Paris.

The other two Gallic powerhouses, La Rochelle and Clermont, face stern English opposition in the Challenge Cup but you cannot rule out a very French flavour to the Newcastle Finals.

Almost on a par with 6N fever, Leinster v Ulster will sell out the Aviva for their North South clash. No Brexits and no backstop in European Rugby.

Does all this mean that Scotland can hit the heights in the Six Nations? They are under the radar screen but let me tell you that Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are the two form players in European rugby bar none – and remember how they destroyed England in 30 minutes of mayhem in Murrayfield. According to one England player last year that was just another away game – how naive. They will not make that mistake in Dublin will they? According to Eddie, England owe the Irish one – sure do after Twickenham last year but they haven’t chosen an easy match for the payback (a word used by Mike Teague before a famous Triple Crown win away in Dublin back in the 90’s against the odds, and delivered).

Everyone can beat everyone at club level across Europe this season and the same applies in the 6N. On the day performance will count as well as some individual stardust – can the returning England heavyweight stars hit form immediately is the immediate question? Please, if he plays, can Tuilagi run straight and put people into space.

However, do not imagine Ireland cannot cut loose rather than indulge in a brutal physical approach – Ringrose, Stockdale and Larmour could threaten a Lions team on current form. No place for faint hearts in Dublin this weekend.

Wales v France meantime could be an absolute classic but no more 15 minute scrums please!

Let the hype be justified and take your seats for a rollercoaster tournament! No predictions, the possible outcomes make Brexit negotiations look simple.

H

Reasons To Be Cheerful As Southern Hemisphere Rugby Comes To Town


The Rugby world has been so busy this season it has been hard to keep up. Here is what has caught my eye so far:

  1. The All Blacks can be beaten, even at home. Great news for everyone and for South Africa who have momentum despite everything. The Rugby World Cup suddenly looks less like a  procession. The Springboks are definitely contenders whatever happens this weekend or elsewhere. Pace and power are their mantra and with the back three England have it could be a cracker of a match at Twickenham.
  2. Leinster lost to Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup – the revival of a giant? Too early to tell but I have been warning about a French resurgence and with Racing and Clermont in fearsome form, not to mention Stade Francais a well respected commentator who tipped them for the World Cup obviously didn’t notice that they are in England’s pool!
  3. Saracens and Exeter are a cut above the rest domestically – but as ever that doesn’t necessarily mean they dominate the England team. But they do know how to lead and win, which is why Farrell and Slade have to be inked in to take the England midfield forward in my opinion.
  4. The revival of Edinburgh and Cardiff domestically and in Europe is credit to the investment and focus of those in charge. Can only be good for the game at large.
  5. Ireland is there to be targeted and generally they do not like to be favourites- difference here is their great depth in many positions but still an unusual position and I am fascinated to see how they deal with it.
  6. Interesting to see how the November Internationals play out on the discipline front.  Europe has set the tone re high tackles and hopefully we will see player behaviour changing.  Or else the sky may be a tinge of red by the end and more education required.
  7. I had to laugh as the Will Carling mentor announcement caused widespread scepticism because he apparently had nothing to do with three Grand Slams and a World Cup Final – it was all about some gnarled old forwards who became well known as a result. The same forwards who could hardly string two wins together or play a half decent match until the Cooke, Carling, Uttley regime arrived to usher in a golden era. Short memories but isn’t that why we love the game?

 

Whether he makes a difference or not to England, all teams need trust, loyalty, commitment, honesty and humility running through their DNA, as well as to understand leadership. If he can help with that then it can only improve those small percentage points required to win big tournaments.

Oh, and did I mention Selection ?!!

H.

Money Starts To Talk As The Premiership Heats Up


It’s World Cup Year (almost), and rugby seemingly makes headlines on a daily basis.  Journos are back to their editors with begging bowls for more space – they will get it too.

Where to start? Down South….

Good news for Argentina, they win a match in the Rugby Championship to match their Jaguares form having been written off a while ago. Not such good news for England’s World Cup pool when the sleeping giant that is France also seems on the move. Off field, Gus Pichot of World Rugby should think twice before upsetting the entire Northern Hemisphere or perhaps there is a plan.

Is Australia in a spiral or is this just a blip caused by injury and poor form – they don’t travel well in November so all the Home Nations will expect to win. No pressure then.

The All Blacks had to lose sometime and it was self inflicted after all. Mind you, 36 points shipped at home is still eye-watering. They may lose again to either Ireland (probable) or England (a one-off) this November but it would be healthy for the World Cup favourites to know they have some stiff competition.

South Africa is an unknown quantity – when the game is fast and loose anything can happen as we saw, they have pace and game-breakers, very un Springbok-like. In wet conditions,
well, ask England!

In Europe, financially refreshed Stade Francais is riding high in the Top 14 alongside Toulouse, who both carry the largest budgets in the league but play with great style, Clermont making an early season statement too and to think they are in the Challenge Cup. Together with Lyon, they are rivalling the juggernauts of Toulon and Montpellier who need to sharpen their play as well as their chequebooks. I predicted a French revival having seen their play at times against the All Blacks this summer and they remain a dangerous threat to known rankings one year out from the World Cup.

I had to smile wryly as my old Financial world came hurtling into Rugby in the form of CVC’s interest in the Premiership, especially as media and others tried to make clumsy sense of it. Only one point to make – rugby valuations are going up and that is a good thing for everyone.  Eddie Jones liked the look of England’s win in the wet at Cape Town apparently but I prefer the first twenty minutes of the other two test matches. There is some serious form being showed in the Premiership early season to persuade him he can persist with the ambition – not so dull after all and certain new players are already putting their hand up for next year’s World Cup. Don’t pick the squad yet!!

H.

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.

VISION AND CLASS WILL DECIDE MATTERS IN SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST


We all thought that the International season was over but we were wrong – even hardened cynics doffed their caps to some incredible contests at the Quarter Final stage of the European Champions Cup Rugby Competition. Despite injury lists reaching epidemic proportions the rugby public was treated to some sumptuous entertainment of the highest class.
 
Tribalism was in abundance, club jerseys worn by Internationals and playing with a ferocity and pace worthy of a winner takes all  weekend. We have more of the same this weekend as Wales (Scarlets) venture to Ireland (Leinster), and the other half of Ireland (Munster) take on the global mavericks of Racing 92, whose French Internationals are in form and enhanced by the class of Carter, Nakarawa and Imhoff.
 
Looking back, brutal power and pace was not enough for Toulon to see off the Munstermen although they feel they should have won. Brilliant skill under pressure from Andrew Conway delivered the killer blow – could there ever have been a more dramatic moment at Thomond Park?
 
Saracens would have blown away everyone but Leinster in the Aviva Cauldron – one mistake from each side after 35 minutes. Incredible stuff and it took (the real) Grand Slam intensity to see the home team through, as well as a classic early try of great class to set the tone.
 
None of these four could have perhaps lived with the intensity at Clermont, who were grievously injured in the collective and suffering more on the day.  They laid down such a challenge to Racing who themselves countered with sheer unstoppable brilliance – and Dan Carter put on a show of class to make the difference. It was a pleasure to be there and that night in Clermont we were all saddened for the home team’s loss, but their spirit and values will see them back soon enough.
 
Lastly, Scarlets revisited days of their glorious past when their collective skills saw them past the new package of La Rochelle who threatened mightily for long periods but were overwhelmed by Welsh Hwyl and sheer quality. This side can win the Champions Cup no doubt , and to hear the singing long after the final whistle made this Welsh-born Englishman smile.
 
In all cases, the physicality was not the difference but vision and daring, England please note. As the three leagues contest the final stages of their domestic competitions the same trend prevails. Long may it continue.
 
I am equally excited to see four of the form teams in their leagues, Gloucester, Newcastle, Cardiff and Pau contest the last four in the Challenge Cup.
 
Bilbao will be rocking all weekend without doubt whichever of the semifinalists get through from both competitions!
Respected commentators hardly dare predict this weekend – titanic struggles ahead and I will be there!! Can’t wait.
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.

LIONS TOURISTS SHARPEN SOME CLAWS IN CHAMPIONS CUP DRAMA


Who would be a Lions coach?!  After the Champions Cup Semi Final in Dublin, Andy Farrell’s face was wreathed in an unfamiliar smile as Saracens withstood the Munster fire and progressed to the Final in Edinburgh. It wasn’t because we had suddenly agreed on how the backs should play! No, it was due to a clean bill of health for all the Lions on the pitch, mainly wearing Saracens colours. The only thing Andy cares about is getting his players on the plane. He was right to be worried as it took a mammoth effort to take down Munster in front of 50,000 fanatical supporters and it was indeed a brutal match.
 
People have asked me why I haven’t discussed the Lions selection yet so here goes – but frankly 90% were guaranteed and it was the 10% which created the chatter; why so few Scots, not enough English, too many Welsh are the main cries. I also wanted some time to think about the player mix and the off field management – I now detect a distinct approach.
 
I was myself a backs selector for the 2001 Lions tour to Australia and remember calling time on the Scott Gibbs debate when I saw that Rob Henderson would clearly complement the excellent Brian O’Driscoll much better than Scott, who had seen his best days. Releasing BOD’s creative genius, not to mention the young Jason Robinson, was a key objective of the Lions on that tour. This tactic worked until the cynical Aussies took Jonny Wilkinson and then Richard Hill out of the 2nd Test through some cheap shots. Justin Harrison’s line out steal from Martin Johnson is also well remembered as the final clinching moment of the deciding Test.
 
So, the conservatism of Gatland is strongly apparent whatever anyone says – the marginal picks such as Biggar, Te’o, Halfpenny, Youngs, Davies and Seymour could all have been replaced by more creative options but it tells you what the Lions coaches think may make the difference as well as the likely style. We shall see.
 
Meantime there can have been no better warm up than the Champions and Challenge Cup Semi-Finals. The Saracens contingent of Lions tourists were in crushing form, and no surprise that Munster could not make headway against the Vunipolas, Kruis, Itoje and George. Add the indomitable Farrell and they drained the Munster machine, which was malfunctioning already and way off the pace in terms of worrying a team like the defending Champions.
 
In sunny Lyon, 42,000 chanting Clermont fans and 3,000 intrepid Leinster travellers kept noise levels way above international wavelengths. It was a truly great match of skill, power and pace. The Lions will wonder that they can afford to leave Ringrose at home as he was the player of the match, scoring a try which will live in the memory and containing every skill in the book. He compared rather well to Henshaw who will probably start against the All Blacks. Sexton was also on prime form, but unable to reel in the multi national Clermont team after giving them a quick 15 point lead.
 
Elsewhere Toby Faletau continued his exceptional form for Bath in their dramatic last minute defeat to Stade Francais, and his man of the match performance against Gloucester last weekend shows one benefit of mid season injuries as he is fresh and pacey. He must start for the Lions, Vunipola or not.
 
More thoughts to come as we approach the business end of the season and, of course, the Edinburgh Finals loom large.
H.

DESTINATION RUGBY RULES


Rugby
It used to be that once the Six Nations was over, sell out rugby grounds were at a huge premium and confined to major finals. No longer, as has been proven since England were squeezed out of a Double Grand Slam by a highly disciplined Irish team. Consider the following…
 
First, Dublin played host to a tumultuous European Champions Cup Quarter-Final which saw Leinster triumph over the leading English Club, Wasps, and with an atmosphere which was way more intense. This coming weekend it’s Munster’s turn to try and make it three in a row for Irish teams and over 50,000 tickets are sold. This will not be for the fainthearted and this time it is the defending European Champions, Saracens, whom Stephen Jones called possibly the best team in the world right now at any level. Hard to disagree when they blew away three quarters of the Scottish team in Glasgow Warriors, scoring 40 points that could have been 60. I heard Ian Robertson call them relentless in squeezing the life out of teams. It is much more than that, their game out wide is without match on any rugby field in the world right now. But can they step into the face of Irish passion against a  Munster who are playing well above themselves in this special season? No Conor Murray but that didn’t bother Ireland.
Over in Lyon, Clermont and Leinster are the two most attractive teams to watch in the competition. More than 35,000 fans will be rammed into the Matmut stadium for their Champions Cup Semi-Final and on paper this ought to be one of the best matches ever in the Cup; two international teams going head to head and quality everywhere you look.
 
Let’s look back at the weekend of April 8th, which broke all records in the Premiership; 130,000 fans attending two games in London alone. At Twickenham, Bath found enough to win in a season which feels increasingly precarious. Banahan produced one of the passes of the year to put Watson in for the winning try and Faletau showed why he will be a Lions starter with startling pace and sleight of hand. It is what Billy Vunipola is still working on but here is a man who is now developing wonderful attitude. He was warned by a Premiership referee to calm down as he dragged Saracens out of a hole against Northampton Saints last weekend to achieve an unlikely win. That is the class which Eddie Jones is looking for.
 
The Pro 12 joined in the party with 60,000 at The Principality to watch the four Welsh regions battle it out in ‘Judgement Day’. Unfortunately not much form was forthcoming in any of the matches, and I am confused to hear how many Welsh names are Lions contenders right now. 
 
Finally, we in Europe announced Bilbao and Newcastle for our next two Finals days. This stretches the boundaries and takes rugby to places where the support is there but the experience is new and fresh. Not without risk of course, even allowing for Barcelona hosting last year’s Top 14 Final to 94,000. St James’ Park was an outstanding venue for the Rugby World Cup 2015 – some say the best – and with the Falcons at long last showing signs of a sustained revival the timing could be perfect.
 
The message is clear – the demand is there, you just have to be creative and bold and the crowds will come. These are heady days for rugby watchers, and it just shows you how many people would watch Six Nations in the flesh if they could get access – although eye-watering prices are hardly conducive.
 
As thoughts turn to the British and Irish Lions announcement on Wednesday, I wonder how many more people would be crammed into the stadia in New Zealand if only they had the facilities and the space. However , it doesn’t really matter what the capacity is because if you are talking destination rugby, then look no further than the current World Champions, and home of many of the best players on the planet. Please note Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the Lions in general: Beauden Barritt is simply the best player in the world today as he once again proved over the weekend. Stop him, and the task is well under way.