Irish Repeat Success In Europe But No Racing Certainty


Some say that Ireland is God’s own country and certainly the rugby gods smiled on them with a clean sweep of European wins this past weekend, a triumphant National team this autumn and the good news goes on, it’s no coincidence.

Continuing the theme, I found myself in Galway to watch Connacht take on Perpignan accompanied by a storm of biblical proportions. Nonetheless a wonderful rugby heartland and with big development plans for their ground which will usher Connacht into a new era of opportunity.

The following day, I travelled to Thomond Park to see Munster cruise past the French Champions, Castres, in second gear. The class of the returning Conor Murray shows what the rugby world has missed.

Under the radar screen, Ulster edged past last year’s form team Scarlets and continue to build an impressive recovery after last year’s troubles. A rising tide lifting all Irish boats…..

Meantime, Toulouse gained a second away win over English opposition and the pool outcome could well see them advance dangerously into the KO phases alongside Leinster, who looked capable but underwhelming against a motivated Bath side.

This competition is no one-horse race, and talking of which Racing 92 look irrepressible. They have amazing skills in multiple positions – how can they have lost any match in the Top 14 this season? Finn Russell is having a ball and loving his new surroundings.

Leicester were no mugs, and George Ford had a sensational game in defeat showing some new skills that impressed me. This was supercharged International rugby in club jerseys, a wonderful tonic after the last week of the Autumn Internationals which were frankly dull and uninspired. One too many?

When you think of Leicester and Bath under pressure in the Premiership, it makes no sense when they can mix it with Europe’s super-élite… somewhat topical, if you think that one of them could end up in the Championship!

Are we about to see the double Scottish breakthrough we have been waiting for? Glasgow and Edinburgh scent the chance to progress in the Heineken Champions Cup but how can we be surprised after the National team mauled England last year at Murrayfield.

Finally, some worrying statistics issued on mental health issues for pro rugby players keep everything in perspective. And tragically, the death announced today of a young Stade Francais player traumatically injured at the weekend leaves us saddened and united in offering sympathies to all our friends in French rugby. RIP.

H.

Eastern Promise From A Dramatic Rugby Fortnight


As if the drama of England’s near miss over the All Blacks two weekends ago wasn’t enough, the Springbok’s two tries (one disallowed) in overtime eventually killed off a valiant French challenge in Paris. But more was to come as Ireland finally lived up to a favourite’s billing by downing the men in Black last Saturday evening and installed themselves as the team to beat next year in Japan. Meantime, Wales quietly build momentum and love being under the radar screen. Yes, all six of the above teams in my opinion can win the Rugby World Cup which is a wonderful competitive prospect.

England no longer at sixes and sevens – the old saying was all to do with which Livery company was ranked sixth (1st tier) or seventh (2nd Tier) in the Lord Mayor’s parade and so they took turns. England can cease their 6.5 policy and install Underhill and Curry as their 7’s and worry about the rest afterwards. Underhill was man of the match against New Zealand and is the real deal. However, I am not sure that Jones has learnt too much else this autumn other than he needs to look after Owen Farrell.

Pace and power wins matches – remember South Africa should have beaten England so they could have been 3/3 and are a real threat – a very young side with stunning pace out wide.

Japan rise up – Brighton 2015 was no fluke. Their ball skills, pace and ambition at Twickenham were world class against England who were simply embarrassed and could have been 20 points down at half time (gulp, I also played against Japan some years ago at Twickenham and we were losing at half time so I know the feeling!). The great French teams of the past, the Wales Grand Slammers of the 70’s and the best club sides of any era, Bath included, could only have sat back and admired them. I wonder whether they could threaten a quarter final spot in their home country… this from a team who have regular jobs alongside their rugby – who says you have to train every hour of the day to push the boundaries! And can there be a better flanker in the world than Michael Leitch?

Ireland showed amazing control at the weekend combined with an intensity that sets them apart and Peter O’Mahoney gets a mention alongside Leitch! Their depth also means they will be a serious force for the first time in a World Cup’s latter stages – the All Blacks will lick their wounds and come back stronger after some weeks on beach duty and we should not forget the relative levels of energy of the two hemispheres at this stage in their respective seasons. Being held tryless was heroic by Ireland but that won’t happen very often.

Lastly – player behaviour is slowly changing in the tackle area with one or two exceptions which were left unpunished, which was a step back, but the direction of travel is clear. Onward.

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.

European Rugby – Vacancies At No. 10


I am not referring to various maverick attempts to take on a political poison chalice, nor is it for me to pass comment on random pre-season behaviour by England’s incumbent stand off,
Danny Cipriani.

Is it midsummer madness or perhaps the endless summer heat, there have been some fascinating pointers towards next years World Cup and they surround the all important no 10 slot. Can it be that the fourth choice All Blacks fly half has come to Wasps as their marquee signing? It looks well justified and yet you cannot dispute that Barrett and McKenzie stand tall, above Richie Mo’unga in the rankings. There is a man who dominated the Super XV for the Crusaders but cannot get selected for the All Blacks. What riches!

South Africa is panicking as they have no back up to Pollard, and nor do Australia for Foley.  Ireland have exported Joey Carberry to Munster to gain experience if Sexton is injured and Wales know they have to make Patchell the real deal to challenge for the World Cup.  France seem not to need a No 10 specialist if they play like they did in the first half of the Third Test v NZ in the summer. This is a team to watch, believe me. At Racing 92 meanwhile, Finn Russell will build on the vision which unravelled England at Murrayfield last year and Scotland will be pleased.

What of England? Farrell should play 10 but the lack of any inside centre causes despair.  Could Jones chat to Baxter and appoint Slade as the season’s 12, then just perhaps for the first time since Will Greenwood we can see some creative decision making.

The season is yet to start, but I wonder if teams will stretch their ambitions – if not, then I suspect they will remain frustrated and it all starts with No 10.

H.

Rugby Wings Take Centre Stage As Beach Beckons


The bad news for England over the weekend comes from an unusual source and will not get any headlines. For the first time in recent memory France showed their true rugby colours and offered a glimpse of what my generation of rugby players experienced every time we saw them take the field. For most of the first half they were irresistible, forwards and backs linking at pace and playing the ball out of the tackle at will. A quite ridiculous piece of referee obstruction cost them momentum and parity with the All Blacks, whose superior fitness and brutal focus on their two game changers, MacKenzie and Ioane, saw them run riot by the end. By the time the World Cup comes along this rate of progress and one or two of their stellar U20 world champions could make them the team to beat – and they are in England’s pool! French holidays on the Cote D’Azur will be laced with optimism for the season ahead.

Elsewhere Ireland have earnt the right to be the form team in the world. It is their match against New Zealand that I await with most anticipation in the autumn. Over-reliance on Sexton and Murray perhaps, but less so, as an avalanche of quality forwards combined with defence based on an indomitable spirit shine through. It was needed as Australia were fearsome and will feel hard done by not to squeeze a victory. Ireland may have raised the bar, with Stockdale now looking world class on the wing, but the men in Gold are not far behind on this evidence.

Argentina is in crisis with three comprehensive home defeats despite the fine performances of the Jaguares in Super Rugby which is counter intuitive and worrying for them with France and England in their RWC pool.

What to make finally of a mish mash ‘last Test’ at Newlands. If it is for the last time, it was a drab way to finish and a forgettable game even if a little bit of history was created for England. We forget that the weather can impact on big matches as we are normally served a diet of free-flowing rugby in bright conditions or covered stadiums. This was an important ‘result’ which allowed Jones and team to call for a resumption of the journey to Japan. Jonny May was the player of the tour, and Cipriani has to start in October – doesn’t he??!! Wouldn’t be so sure.

The statistics show that Jones has picked 100 players during his tenure, falling into the trap of previous England coaches who have surveyed the many resources available to them and done the same. England’s three most successful periods with their greatest players, 1980 (Beaumont), 1991-2 (Carling) and 2001-3 (Johnson) all enjoyed the same characteristics – consistency and loyalty in a shrewd selection process and strong, respected off field management which was spread across different skill sets. It’s not too late – just.

Quite apart from England, I can see six or more settled squads playing an exciting brand of rugby across the world. It bodes well for 2019. Even more exciting is the arrival of stunning wing play wherever you look. Apart from the two Springbok newcomers, Stockdale of Ireland, Marika Koroibete of Australia, Ioane of NZ,  Teddy Thomas of France and Jonny May have all starred in various ways. Ioane in particular is being used to great effect by NZ on running angles almost impossible to defend, as is Mackenzie and these two could be the key for their 2019 World Cup aspirations.

Footnote

Humble, having fun, youthful and ambitious, modest in press interviews, smiling at the world and dreaming of a World Cup – yes, it’s the English Football team who may not have beaten anyone of significance yet but we are all liking their style on and off the field. Bravo!

H.

 

Rugby Greens And Gold Paint A Picture Of Progress


Summer tours have sometimes appeared to be tiresome and meaningless. But not one year before a World Cup. We have in fact learnt a lot about aspiring hopes and that the All Blacks do not have the field to themselves. This final weekend’s rugby, before beaches become littered with bruised International bodies, will not change the fact that some countries are shooting up the rankings while one country goes in the other direction – England. Is that part of a cunning plan, Blackadder-style, to fool the world as well as the All Blacks?

The World Champions in fact have found out nothing this June, other than the fact that a tired French team is no match even for an opposition operating at 50%. I have bored people for long enough about how much rugby a Frenchman plays each season to render these results obvious. Steve Hansen was upset to lose the French fullback to a red card because it left the 2nd Test meaningless. It also allowed him to show sympathy rather than to contrast with the worryingly inexplicable decision in the First Test to ignore one of the most shocking head tackles I have seen for a while. Meantime his victim ended up in hospital with a double head fracture. What will it take?

Encouraging for the French is that their U 20 team have won the World Cup – devastating forward play and imaginative backs with ball in hand. Back to the future?

Wales have leapfrogged England into 3rd place in the world after a fine series win over Argentina with a weakened team. I really fancy them to have a strong World Cup as they not only have depth in key positions through careful player development but a real understanding of how they wish to play the game.

Ireland have had a stellar season and this weekend could top it off, but it matters not other than for Ireland to learn how to win the ’big one’ consistently. With no World Cup track record of note there is nothing to fall back on, but then no pressure either. Their forwards are looking awesome with the ball in hand, probably the best in the world right now. Their opponents, Australia, are also coming along nicely and tend to time their run into World Cups. I fancy that they will be very motivated this November, unlike last year.

Sleeping giants in rugby terms, the USA recorded a memorable win against Scotland, but with their lack of depth the Scots have to experiment and it makes not an ounce of difference to their progression as a top 6 rugby nation.

And so to the Springboks who have surprised everyone with their Blitzbokke (7’s) style of play. Such pace and imagination and real performance from the spine of their team (2, 8, 9, 10, 15) which I suggest has been the key to their stunning wins. In addition they have two packs of forwards who would compete against anyone in the world. How times have changed, and with a back three even quicker than England’s. No-one is celebrating their midfield play and this is still a work in progress. In a year’s time though, this group of players will strongly contest the RWC and you could not have said that a short while ago.

As for England I genuinely thought that their Saracen forwards would carry on where they left off the domestic season and drag England along with them, but no sign of it. In fact to the contrary, a series of performances that have left observers open mouthed at their fragility and poor technique up front. You cannot criticise their attacking back play at times, which has been a revelation, especially Jonny May who looks on top of his game and could play centre on this form!

Looking through the poor defence, ill discipline and lack of concentration, a full-strength squad can still be a threat to the other top nations and you write England off at your peril. However, there is a serious lack of confidence driven by poor form and curious selections, together with the weakest back row I can remember.

This weekend is key for the coaching staff as well as the players. Only a thumping win will do – and could happen as the Springboks have rested at least 5 players in key positions.  The boost they need though is further out – the All Blacks game in November is currently a dark cloud on the horizon but is also a short route to redemption for England to make the world take notice.

H.

Rugby Finals Scaling New Heights


In this pre World Cup year, we have seen what it is going to take to be successful. Pace and power running from the forwards with ability to pass out of the tackle. Midfield creativity and counterattack – not endless, mindless phase play. It seems to have worked for the winners this season at International and Club level.

The difference in intensity between the European Challenge and Champions Cup in Bilbao was striking. Leinster and Racing, the two best sides in Europe would have put 50 points on either Gloucester or Cardiff in my view – this is only saying that the last two are on the same path but not as far down it. Racing chose to take on Leinster at source – and succeeded. However, they weren’t going to win without showing their wider game. It was a choice not to and certainly backfired.

Scarlets have been the best attacking team in Europe this year, but have been undone twice by a Leinster team brimming with attacking pace and power from forwards and backs alike, note the key difference. However, Taidgh Berne’s incredible try against Bath will, for me, be the individual highlight of the season.

Strong defences are a common theme at the top and Exeter, Saracens, Leinster, Racing & Montpellier all excel. But you have to have more than that – forwards running into space and passing out of the tackle at pace was started by the All Blacks (of course!) and winning teams have this now in abundance. Unpredictability is also important, and that takes a little time to develop as some have found out. Wasps had that in abundance but occasionally forgot to tackle.

Saracens would have tested Leinster severely in their current form. They have 5 players who must start for England up front, being in a different class from most in Europe. Exeter couldn’t hold them and both sides despatched every other pretender in England. The gulf widens.

Montpellier or Castres may win their domestic final but neither emerged from their European pool, so it is difficult to measure. However their league is brutally tough and it is an achievement to even get there. The emergence of Lyon was wonderful to see, and they will get stronger.

All credit though to Leinster and Ireland – quality out wide, creative power up front and a well known English coach to the fore. How ironic – Ireland second favourites for the World Cup now and a pipeline of quality at Leinster to make others realise the benchmark just went up again in Europe 

Footnotes 

1. Anyone see Larmour’s try at the weekend? The whole stadium was on its feet applauding a star in the making. I agree.

2. World Rugby trialling lower tackle height – Bravo.

3. Two retiring greats – Chris Wyles and Schalk Brits, not to forget Isa Nacewa – a true Leinster legend.

 

H.

 

No Luck In This Irish Slam!


Why did I imagine that Ireland was not good enough for a Grand Slam – nerveless (40 plays before the miracle Sexton drop goal in Paris), clinical (Italy), and coldly predatory (Scotland and Wales), before rendering the tumultuous St Patrick’s Day clash somewhat academic after 40 remarkable minutes at Twickenham. Trying to stay warm became a major consideration as England struggled to make a statement in the closing stages against an Ireland team which was calmness personified. This group of players can definitely win a World Cup (no pressure because no track record) but for now let us salute some hardbitten forwards, world class half backs and a number of inspirational game breakers who may be highly influential next year – Stockdale, Ringrose, Larmour and Carberry. Worthy Grand Slam Champions without a doubt and a European Cup also awaits if they can keep the intensity (well rested of course, very few of their key players pulled on a shirt this past weekend other than to keep the sun off their backs).

Elsewhere, Wales blooded their youngsters impressively, and Gatland has a spring in his step as he has real depth of quality now in his squad. They feel they should have beaten England (shhh) so the season could have been even better. The Scarlets await La Rochelle this weekend in the Champions Cup and with Cardiff riding high in Pro 14 and quarterfinalist in the Challenge Cup there are reasons to be cheerful in the Land of our Fathers.

France will take heart from their campaign despite no flyhalf in sight, and while more roundhead than cavalier these days they will only get better after a dismal time. I say that because they now have a rock hard defence and at last one or two flair players to celebrate as long as it’s on the field of play. One point defeats to Wales and Ireland – both games they should have won – are a sign of recovery and what may have been.

Which sums up Italy – their winless campaign was misleading and they had plenty to offer this year especially in attack. Parisse is waning, but Negri and Polledri could both make it into the England team, and Minozzi at fullback is a genius.

Scotland produced the half of the tournament against England, and the trio of Russell, Jones and Hogg provide essential star quality to match the reinvigorated forward effort which is bearing fruit at every level now. Their excellence in the back row and midfield is the key, as for any team wanting to be the best in the world.

Which brings me to England and their inability to find mix and balance in those areas. In a world of process and centralised instruction, this is where the coaching and selection matters and we saw little of it. Overtrained, fatigued, lacking leadership and passion are the media’s favourite clamours (after two successive championships mind you) …… something of everything I suppose, on my shopping list is an attack coach which will be a start, the current strategy is not easy to see or appreciate. More generally, forget 5th position and think more about being conclusively outplayed for long periods of the tournament. That is also what’s worrying the powers that be at Twickenham who simultaneously are trying to raise returns while the performance goes in the other direction. England supporters (the right ones) may just be a little more savvy than that.

All in all, the pundits were right so let us raise a glass of the black stuff to our friends across the Irish Sea. Maith thú!

Irish Triumph Would Be The Grandest of Slams


Ireland is on a five day party in England!  Cheltenham first then on to Twickenham to pitch for a Grand Slam – which would be an incredible achievement against a wounded England who are the two times defending Six Nations champions. That would hurt beyond hurt for the hosts and be an all time achievement in my mind for the men in green. Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to remind ourselves of a few glory-bound teams being undone on the final day of the 5/6 Nations…

Scotland came to Twickenham chasing a Triple Crown in the final match of 1987 against a winless England lacking 5 players who had been banned for fighting, including the Captain. Scotland were thumped 26-12.

England went to Murrayfield on a triumphal march in 1990 to claim the Grand Slam and instead it went to Scotland. No-one is forgetting that one.

England travelled to Cardiff and Dublin in recent years for the ultimate prize and were comprehensively undone on both occasions.

Ireland would do well to remember all this as they try to impose their relentless style of play built on possession and low error count. I have always loved Ringrose as an attacking talent, and together with the Sexton link play there is try scoring potential. But last year it was the pack which subdued the English challenge, which to be fair did not consist of much on the day. I suspect the same approach again lies in store and this year the Irish forwards are brimming with confidence and world class operators.

For England, they should look to play with some organised chaos, old Ireland style. The pack have to play with ferocity and aggression for the first time in the Championship – Kruis has a chance for redemption as does Haskell. Sinckler will be a handful, so will Itoje who owes England a big one. Farrell is a supreme passer in midfield and now will have first shout on the distribution and no-one will come down his channel confidently. He will feed the pace out wide better than Ford. Te’o and Joseph have plenty to prove in my opinion, but they may not be the influential players on the day.

Bottom line England must rip into Ireland and keep it up for 80 minutes, disruption being the order of the day. There is enough anger and hurt in this team surely to deliver the first real performance of a tournament they have barely turned up for. Eddie Jones keeps saying it is his coaching that has failed when England loses – I don’t buy that, it’s a cheap distraction and for another day to wonder whether he should be the attack coach as well as everything else. This is down to the players, and whether you wear white or green I simply cannot call it – but if I had to, then a big hearted England performance can surely be enough at home – just.

Talking of parties, whoever wins tomorrow the party will be long and hard as with all England Ireland contests, and I should know!

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.