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.

The Business Of Rugby


As the denouement of the Six Nations, Heineken Champions Cup, Challenge Cup and domestic leagues have played out over the last few weeks, it was tempting to look off-field as well as on-field for all the rugby stories.

Here are a selection of some which caught my eye and my theme is the business of rugby….. very topical!

ON FIELD

  1. Smart play and self-belief saw Wales to worthy Grand Slam status – my Welsh birthplace comes to the fore so I can at least claim some heritage! Top performance by Liam Williams in particular across all the games if I had to pick out someone. They went about their business and worked it out game by game- highly professional.
  2. I played in seven Calcutta Cup matches and if you missed a tackle you agonised for days about it, as did everyone else. Twickenham saw a sensational match this year unrivalled in the history of the contest but firstly let’s pay tribute to a Scottish attack which will take so much optimism into Japan and, with a full squad, who knows. I called it a couple of months ago and at least I feel I wasn’t making it up.  Thinking clearly under pressure (TCUP) was coined by Sir Clive Woodward and reflects England’s issue perfectly alongside some leadership questions. This will bother them until they lift the World Cup, no time left to assuage the doubters.
  3. Was there a better weekend of club rugby ever for the Heineken Champions Cup Quarter Finals? 40,000 at Murrayfield to see Munster use their key moments a lot better than an Edinburgh team who will be back. The agony and the ecstasy for Racing and Toulouse players and supporters as a last minute winning try was overturned and the magnificent 14 man resistance by Toulouse saw them squeak through – what quality both teams showed and it ranks as one of the best matches I have ever seen, with the emotion to boot.
  4. A devastated Ulster just failed to overturn Leinster and their King of Wings blew a winning intervention – the ups and downs of sport. Meantime Saracens’ warriors were far too strong for the Celtic version and marched on ominously into the semi-finals where they employed their unique combination of power and pace to overwhelm Munster. For Toulouse, their young side will come again, but it doesn’t help when your 9 is picked at 10 for such a big match as Leinster, and Jonny Sexton wasn’t going to miss that opportunity.
  5. The Newcastle European Finalists are now known and both Leinster and Saracens have set the standard on how well organised you have to be at every level – it is a business. Multiple numbers of Academy based players dominate their squads, ie homegrown. Anyone can buy in talent and it mostly doesn’t work. Invest in your own and you get the best of all worlds.

 

OFF FIELD

  1. Talking of club-grown talent and adherence to the employment rules, or otherwise, in recent criticisms, particularly of Saracens….. let me ask a different question – how many clubs really look after their players from start to finish of their career, like they do? Whether it be injury, loss of form or retirement that suddenly calls time? Cricket has worse statistics, but rugby has a serious issue with depression and mental health issues for retired players in the professional game. Too many clubs pay lip service to this, and it is a real problem. Let us think about the duty of care to the players we enjoy watching and how they cope when it’s all over. I am wondering whether corporate sponsors should be contractually obliged to take some of these multi-talented assets on board?!
  2. Incoming monies are revolutionising the pro game right now and people are panicking because they doubt investors intentions. The reality is that our sport is commercially underdeveloped and these investments will add significant value. None of the rugby governing bodies can operate in a vacuum. It may be painful to break old habits but this is an inflection point for the game.
  3. Meantime, communication and shared objectives are critical in business. Too many rugby authorities think they can grow and develop on their own. Do not live in a bubble!

 

FINALLY

If I was to explain rugby management to an outsider, I would allude to four main characters in the game – the volunteer amateur (99% of the game), paid administrator, wealthy investor, ex player with business experience. Simplified but essentially correct. They all have a rightful voice, but the trick is to take what is best from all of them and the effective compromise is complete. The next 12 months will be the most critical in our professional game to date – and they all have to remember that they owe the game at large a successful outcome. A rocky time ahead, but a game which is surging in popularity around the world can harness huge waves of support.

Think correctly under pressure, on and off the field.

So Here It Is… The England Midfield At Last


There comes a time when an English rugby team has suffered enough, certainly after two humbling defeats against the Irish in past years depriving them of silverware in one case and suffering in silence their grand slam celebrations at Twickenham in another.  England had all the psychological advantages against a country which carried uneasily the mantle of the world’s best side, itself unprecedented.  Ireland felt a need to control that position and manage it, not throw it away and confront what was coming at them.  Indeed England had warned as much!

In addition, their two form second rows were injured, Sexton and Murray were undercooked from injury and the Henshaw experiment was interesting but unnecessary.  Their midfield was a real mess and the kicking game rather average – the space against England is out wide but it never happened.  Interesting that Schmidt chose not to employ Carbery or Larmour two more form players.  In the post match interviews he sounded accepting of the reality check.  Time will tell if this is a blip – I suspect so.  But enough of the excuses, let us praise England undilutedly.

My last piece talked of payback and what it takes to deliver – this was it.  In hunting down this Irish team into every corner and across every blade of grass, two sublime passes from England’s now nailed on midfield created two winning tries.  My long held but frustrated admiration of Slade was gloriously justified and he has such great awareness of space.  Tuilagi was asked to do exactly what he can so well – batter through and keep the ball for the next phase.  Jonny May will never play a better game for his country and Daly is world class, never any question of a doubt there. PLEASE do not change this backline.

Jones’ prematch commentary was respectful of the occasion and his players, almost embracing normality – another welcome shift and he also made his best selection yet.  Payback indeed from the players exclusively and what a test match, credit to both sides and a privilege to watch.

Meantime, I know about Greeks bearing gifts, but French bonhomie hit the heights in the Stade de France on Friday night as a scarcely deserving Welsh team took home the spoils, and George North who was rather average apart from his two tries somehow was somehow man of a very soggy match.  Liam Williams was in fact a class apart and the one bright spot.  France could ship 50 at Twickenham especially if they allow Hail Mary passes from Second row forwards but I bet they don’t… the psychological boot is on the other foot.  But Gatland is right, Wales have forgotten how to lose and France needs more than Gallic shrug and a change of fortune.

Anyone spot the new man Sam Johnson doing some smart things in the Scottish midfield against Italy?  Probably won’t trouble the better teams quite yet, but I like the look of him and Scotland will definitely fancy their chances this weekend with Russell and Hogg also in stellar form.
Anyone thinking about Wales v England yet??!!
Amid the 6 Nations romance, the 14th Feb is not far off now so go to www.sportingwineclub.com for inspiration! There’s more to life than rugby!
H