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.

Welbedacht And Sporting Wine Club Come To Munster


Sometimes passionate rugby people come together – and even better if it involves wine.

The return of the great Conor Murray to action for Munster’s European victory over Castres coincided with the debut appearance of Schalk Burger’s wines at Thomond Park through the auspices of Sporting Wine Club.  Two of his very best were on display, the Welbedacht Chardonnay and Pinotage and by the end of the day they had all been enjoyed by the Munster faithful – and no more to be seen!

Both Schalk Senior and Schalk Junior, great Springbok rugby players of their generation, would have fitted well into the Munster rugby family ethos: traditional values of trust, humility and loyalty but with a huge passion for their rugby and their people.

Somehow I think Schalk’s wines will be back before too long.

Thanks to Munster Rugby and good luck for the rest of your European campaign. Remember the finals are in Newcastle!

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.

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.

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

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.