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

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.

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.

 

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.

‘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.

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.

2018 – A Rugby Year For The Brave


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 
  1. Coaches and players continue to push the boundaries of skill which are producing such high quality matches currently (reference Leinster, Exeter, Wasps, La Rochelle)
  2. 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.
  3. Less well resourced nations like Fiji and Samoa are finally given the financial help they deserve and not just from World Rugby.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
 

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