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

A Rugby World In Union In 2019?


It was easy to eulogise about the Irish last year – they have the best set up in World rugby and their results were no fluke at National and provincial level. Rarely can Twickenham have been silenced so easily on a big match day as when a chilly first half made Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam aspirations a reality and England disappeared into the March murkiness.

Meantime another first half, this time at sunny Murrayfield, saw Scotland dismember a slow starting England and have the game won by the break. My head was in my hands on why I had gone there against my better judgement (I played 4 times there back in the day and it’s always painful whatever the result), but in the end I was admiring Scotland’s true class.

If 2018 was the last chance to experiment before Japan, then the other abiding memory was the extreme pace and wit of South Africa, winning in NZ and then comfortably seeing off England. Faf Du Klerk and his red-hot Springbok wide runners will light up the World Cup and give them a genuine chance of winning.

I may be giving England a hard time but that was their year. Selection and fitness will be critical now for Japan – no time for anything else, then back themselves for some one-off surprises.

So what about 2019? A couple of early pointers……

CVC’s arrival in rugby is an inflection point make no mistake, and it seems to have given the Premiership a shot in the arm immediately. Drama everywhere and a stirring up Manchester way is attracting attention. Meeting Simon Orange recently, Sale Sharks’ new owner, with the wise old heads of Fran Cotton and Steve Smith not far away, was to sense a real passion and commitment. Steve Diamond divides opinion but his players love him. Talking of Du Klerk he is unleashing their backline which looks the most potent in the Premiership bar none.  It is a small squad, but if they can all stay fit watch out everyone. Oh and Sam James is very very underrated.

It seems counterintuitive given that Les Bleus lost to Fiji last November, but French rugby is on fire. Racing 92, Clermont and Toulouse have taken ‘offloading’ to a different level in Europe and Top 14. Breath-taking to watch and surely France can make something out of all this even if Nakarawa, Zebo and Russell can never be ‘coqs sportifs’.

 

HEALTH WATCH

Tragically, four young rugby related deaths in France over the last year have caused soul searching and across the game at large, at last. Players must change behaviour and also be protected, sometimes from themselves, referees must be given clarity and authority and combine that with some empathy, and administrators turn talk into action through law changes. We are trying hard in Europe but it’s a global issue – come in, World Rugby, as soon as you like. Recent pronouncements indicate action coming.

PS Some stunning clashes coming up in Europe this weekend starting tonight at Gloucester – what Brexit ?

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.

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 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.

 

Player Watch!


Teddy Thomas may be the headline grabber for Racing 92 and France but Wenceslas Lauret, his teammate, is a King of backrows in Europe alongside a clutch of Irishmen and in my book will be a World Cup star. 
 
James Haskell’s last game at Wasps should be recognised as he has been a real star.  He thinks that his high tackle penalty show the game has gone soft.  My answer is that players need protection, and sometimes from themselves.  I would change the colour of the cards when issued and then behaviour really will change.
 
Aled Brew is Bath’s player of the season. He played Saracens almost on his own the other week with his power and commitment in attack and defence. A team full of Brews would have seen them in the playoffs.

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.

Winemaker Tour – Jacky Lorenzetti


The Banks of the Gironde represent some of the best wine-growing conditions  in France. The world renowned villages of St Estephe, Pauillac and Margaux are where the Sporting Wine Club travelled to visit Jacky Lorenzetti, owner of Racing 92 and self declared lover of fine wines as expressed through his three chateaux.
 
Chris and I kicked off our mini tour at the Chateau Lilian Ladouys, enjoying some superb French cuisine. Jacky graciously congratulated Chris on the Irish Grand Slam while I continued to practise my French and look forward to the Champions Cup Q Final at Clermont where Racing 92 feature in an all French clash.
 
After a comfortable night in our 16th century surroundings, the wine tour showed up traditional winemaking skills, and then we moved on to Chateau Pédesclaux, one of the most modern wineries in the world. Stunning technology and gravity based techniques create a Grand Cru Classée Classic and more besides. The tour was a real highlight and the lunch even more so, quality wines in attendance at all times.
Finally to the Chateau D’Issan, whose wines were served at the wedding of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 13th Century. A moated Chateau looking onto a windmill (whence comes the Moulin D’Issan) and the river just beyond tells you all you need to know about the beauty of the region. Traditional winemaking techniques  again dominated and we were left in awe of the history and quality of all three chateaux we visited.
 
We will be coming back here that’s for sure and if these pictures don’t persuade you ………
 
Best Chris and Simon