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!!
What kind of vintage was the Rugby Year of 2017 in the context of Japan, land of the Rugby World Cup 2019?
Apart from the British and Irish Lions performance against the odds, admittedly enhanced by Sonny Bill Williams foolhardy head tackle in the second test, this year was all about consolidation and preparing for the real tests ahead rather than any life-changing excitement.
Without really breaking sweat, the All Blacks stayed ahead of the pack and have developed the depth they need, losing a couple of games along the way which all great teams have to suffer.
England keep winning with the Grand Slam fading to a Championship, hardly a disaster. In leaving a nagging doubt that they just don’t play with enough sustained excellence, they have finishers, and how. If they can stay in a game they can win every time. Smart but risky.
Ireland look very dangerous and they can beat anyone on their day – the best resource management in the world without doubt and all their best players are centred in a few provinces which makes a huge difference.
Let people not think Australia is an easy touch because England and especially Scotland sent them home to think again – they will peak for the World Cup and are a definite semifinalist with all their quality.
France and South Africa are broken by their own internal issues and surely cannot recover in time – tragic, because they have such talent at their disposal.
Scotland is the wild card which excites me – pace and power and a very very smart coach who is getting them to win games again (don’t mention the All Blacks). Organised chaos was their watchword in the 80’s, good enough for Grand Slams and World Cup semifinals. Here they come again.
Sad to say, Wales and Argentina are riven by fatigue and injuries, undone by scheduling and a punishing game which demands deep resource or much better player management. But they are proud nations so expect a World Cup bounce whatever happens this year.
Fiji have so many outstanding individuals playing all round the world you must think they will spring a surprise if they can hold onto the players, or will that be the preserve of the hosts? Who can forget Japan v SA 2015!
All in all, most teams are marking time Internationally while domestic and European club rugby grows stronger and stronger – more on that another time.
My hopes for 2018
- Coaches and players continue to push the boundaries of skill which are producing such high quality matches currently (reference Leinster, Exeter, Wasps, La Rochelle)
- World Rugby finally introduces new limits on high tackles and bans the clear out. The dangers are accelerating worryingly and defence coaches should also be held to account.
- Less well resourced nations like Fiji and Samoa are finally given the financial help they deserve and not just from World Rugby.
- If the right people are not put round a table to sort out the global season structure in 2018, we will have a real crisis and the main sufferers will be the players. Unacceptable. It is not made easier by the discussions likely over the domestic structure of the two club powerhouses of the Northern Hemisphere, England and France.
- A world class Six Nations for the first time in years, driven by a rampant Scottish team and somehow a French revival – or am I dreaming on that one?
- La Rochelle to break into the big time by challenging the best in Europe.
Lastly, somewhere soon somehow a scrum half will put the ball in straight – oh ok, only a joke.