Could it have been the zero tolerance recently adopted on high tackles and clear outs, driven by the players and new referee guidelines? Or acclimatisation to empty grounds (not easy)? Or a reaction to the mass outcry against boring kickathons?
Either way, we have seen a number of weeks of rugby of the highest quality and ambition, in the Six Nations, Europe and across domestic leagues. The Six Nations exploded into action after the soul-destroying Autumn series and Wales were deserved winners. They had the best discipline and developed their youngsters better than anyone else including the French who had rather too many at their disposal in the end to know who to choose from! Ireland’s development plan became clear with that stunning English win, and the ticking time bomb of a ball always meant to be passed was defused even by England who ended up out of sorts, mistrustful of their young stars and seemingly more weighed down than others in a pressured, constrained environment. How did Scotland finish 4th after two stunning away wins? They could have won the Grand Slam and their confidence will have skyrocketed after this season, a big moment for them.
We have seen some incredible talent come through which will bode well for Rugby World Cup 2023. It feels a little Darwinian, that coaches and players decided to adapt and change or risk permanent rejection from frustrated fans. Just as well the stadia were empty at times, the pressure has been different, self-imposed rather than with expectant crowds.
There is nothing like KO rugby to bring out the best in people and we saw that in both European competitions, with last minute triumph and heartbreak in equal measure, London Irish/ Cardiff, Wasps/Clermont, Munster/Toulouse, Dragons/Saints the best examples. Sensational stuff.
Crowds do matter. Although you felt that Munster’s disadvantage was greater than others -the Thomond Park roar is legendary – I also cannot imagine a full- throated Parc Y Scarlets not inspiring the men in Red (so many 6 Nations champs in their midst) on to greater efforts although Sale Sharks have made a statement and a half to the club world after that performance. Our and other sports could have done a lot more to get crowds to and from our stadia safely, but this is another story.
The best coaches from the past (and mine), Brian Ashton and Jack Rowell, always talked about running into space not contact. It was refreshing to hear Ronan O’Gara rehearse this after the La Rochelle match which had seen multiple examples – same throughout the Wasps/Clermont and Munster/Toulouse encounters which were of the highest class given this was last 16 not semi-finals. The French psyche has been well and truly re-awoken, and it will take world class performances from Exeter, Leinster, Sale to stop a team from France lifting the trophy this year. It is a crying shame that Marseille cannot be the finals destination, but these are Covid times, and we live with the outcomes.
Quarter Final weekend approaches and another eye-watering set of match ups. I cannot wait and will even squeeze in luckily to watch a game live – now there is a thing to celebrate and while the TV coverage is exceptional, we all want crowds in stands cheering their heroes. Coming soon.
Thanks for reading,
As the 6N deals with its own Covid challenges, Premiership Rugby was experiencing another painful reminder about the reality of improving safety in our game. 5 red cards in three matches the other weekend for head contact caused dismay but a different reaction to that of a couple of years ago. Then, ex players and coaches were holding their own heads in dismay or rolling their eyes at decisions which were ‘ruining’ a game which was apparently going soft.
No longer – the players and scientists have spoken loudly and now let us watch the behaviour change. Certain defence coaches will have to change their story. The very best of them all, Shaun Edwards, got there before them and the worst news for other European rugby nations/clubs is that the new discipline is seeping into French consciousness under his tutelage. We also learnt that Wales has not suffered a yellow or red card for 14 matches which could be one reason behind their success and a legacy of Edwards?
Talking of which, rarely can a Wales v England match have generated so many headlines. A record score for the men in red, and very grumpy behaviour from the visitors. Wayne Pivac whispered it quietly that he had been giving youngsters their chance in the Autumn and perhaps this performance was conclusive justification of that approach- Rees-Zammit, Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy have come of age and effectively won the game for their country.
Elsewhere, Cameron Redpath of Scotland, Craig Casey and Hugo Keenan of Ireland, Steve Varney and Paolo Garbisi of Italy, have all marked out a bright International Future having been given a chance.
As for the French, they approach Twickenham at the weekend having nearly triumphed with their third team back in the Autumn. Their top picks are still youngsters so it will be a fascinating contrast. A rather grim faced England squad was having to watch sensational Premiership matches this weekend just gone with untrusted talent blossoming wherever you look and performing in some problem positions for England. However, a shot at redemption for the incumbents is not to be underrated.
While Covid may or may not have disrupted France, England has a massive point to prove and with most of the same players it seems. I have said often there is always a good England team around the corner because of their resources, and selection is the key. I remember when 6 England players were banned for fighting/dirty play (no Welsh mind you) and three more dropped in 1987 after the Arms Park debacle – I and many others were then selected against Scotland who were chasing the Triple Crown, bursting with British Lions and on the day we crushed them. Heart, soul, belief and pride.
These qualities can take you a long way in rugby, and talking of which no rugby team should go unprepared to Cornwall, the ‘Badlands’ as described by the Pirates coach, which Saracens obviously did to their cost. In my Bath days, Redruth Rugby Club was all about Hellfire corner (a slice of their ground at the bottom of a steep slope, against the wind, always muddy and impossible to escape from) and you knew to get ready for a tustle, win or lose.
Even in today’s pre- programmed world, rugby can spring great surprises which is why we all love the game and will look forward avidly to this weekend.
Thanks for reading,
Many people will be aware of the acronym KISS, not just because of Valentine’s weekend just past. Keep It Simple Stupid was often used in our Bath rugby training sessions (and elsewhere) when we were working out winning strategies. Eddie Jones has suggested that England was guilty of too much analysis and trying too hard. The answer is that Rugby is still a simple game despite data consultants and coaches persuading you differently. Recent match data has been less than useless recently in pointing to eventual winners, witness possession statistics for example. It is what you do with the ball you get !!
England, Italy, Wales and Scotland entrusted their wide runners with various opportunities and were handsomely rewarded. Watson, the obvious man of the match, clearly has had a bellyful of spectating so he showed us all exactly why he should be fed the ball early and regularly. He also received as much possession from Italy’s kickers as from his own midfield which was remarkably generous. Eliot Daly still looks well short of his best. The change of pace and ability to unlock defences seems not to be there. Henry Slade is also under par partly because the partnership with Farrell looks very forced and needs work to succeed. Overall, England may require more pace in the back row so Billy needs to sharpen up or the likes of Simmonds and Dombrandt come into the picture.
I rated the Italian effort, especially the simple quality of their two tries which showed England a thing or two. Their two young halfbacks would have made merry behind the England pack. The scoreline flattered the hosts, especially if you regrettably chalk out the ‘Mayfly’ touchdown which was NFL-like and technically illegal as Nigel Owens pointed out.
However, they will take the predicted victory forward to Wales, who will have gained huge confidence from their Murrayfield triumph. Scotland will feel aggrieved because the skills of their backline under Hogg’s exceptional leadership (and the Lions?) should have won the day. However, Rees-Zammit (a la Watson) can turn matches and hide any number of woes, and the sympathetic passing of the exotically named Willis Halaholo may point to a hidden talent for Wales. As Ireland found out and now Scotland, unnecessary head contact costs you the match and there is no excuse – surely both countries will learn their lesson as they would have undoubtedly both won with a full complement. Shaun Edwards taught Wales to tackle legally a long time ago and now they have played two won two. Who would have thought it!
France’s first try in Dublin had so many ‘offloads’ in the lead up it was faintly surreal but tells you how far Les Bleus have come in their game development. As in Italy they struck rapier-like at the first sign of opportunity. This is not the perfect side yet by any means, but one that quietly knows its potential. Penaud’s effort reflected great vision by Dupont and Jalilbert, and again emphasised the potency of creativity at pace. Conversely, the Irish attack was unfocused and often behind the gainline with unsympathetic passing all too prevalent, stifling opportunity. Can someone tell me what John Cooney has done wrong? The Ulsterman was in my humble opinion a stand out player to replace Conor Murray.
After Round 2, I am smiling with the thought that some old rugby truths still apply – quality ball to your best runners can reap match winning rewards and it is so exciting to watch. Blundering high collision tactics are yesterday’s story and lead to injuries and suspensions. QED !
Thanks for reading,
David Egerton arrived at Bath in the mid eighties when the supreme back row of the time was storming through club rugby, namely Roger Spurrell, Bath’s piratical Captain, a young Jon Hall who was terrifyingly good as well as terrifying, and Paul Simpson, the ebullient Northerner who enjoyed himself far too much to enjoy a long England career.
Dave was very different, controlling line-outs at will given his height and covering the ground with great authority, quite easy given his long stride. He had great ball-handing ability, soon became a dominant figure and worked himself into a Bath legend.
Unlike the overtly snarling characters in the Bath pack, who commanded respect in the deepest reaches of the Welsh Valleys, he was understated but had the same effect. I remember when felled by an aggressive opposition forearm, a passing Chilcott or Spurrell would most likely have given me a clip on the way past to rub it in. Dave stopped and winked at me: ‘Hallers, you ok? Man or mouse?’ and the challenge was the same but delivered very differently.
Few people messed with him, as he was an intimidating figure. Undoubtedly, when flanked by Jon Hall and Andy Robinson in the late eighties, this back row was a huge key to our success. If I, Stuart Barnes or Jerry Guscott found our way blocked, Edgy would be there cleaning up the mess and was often the unsung hero against his more illustrious colleagues.
England’s famous win against Australia in 1988 at Twickenham to herald a revival leading to two grand slams and a World Cup Final saw some mighty contributions from Dave that day. But for Dean Richards, Mike Teague and injuries, he would have won many more caps. He was tough as teak, but a gentle giant. One of those great combinations.
In some early tributes, many refer to his rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’. It was a special song to him and he made it a party piece. Dave was a member of the Bath Dining Club (BDC) and in the infamous French restaurant in Bath called the Beaujolais, his table-top version ended up with a paper tablecloth on fire and general consternation from everyone but the phlegmatic owner Jean-Pierre.
I did not see much of Dave after our careers finished, but occasional reunions brought back the memories. He always had a broad smile on his face and remembered way more than I ever could aspects of our rugby times together, mostly at my expense. As with anyone who played for Bath, there was respect and an unstated bond of unity. We all knew how our collective will and effort had brought us the success we enjoyed.
Edgy will be missed in so many ways, and although he is gone he will never be forgotten. The rugby gods will be welcoming him to the top table I can guarantee and no doubt ‘Ring of Fire’ will be their first request.
Simon John Halliday