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!
Tadgh Beirne and Jordan Larmour are two names you may never have heard of but by 2019 you definitely will have – the Scarlets second rower and Leinster Full Back could well become stars of the next World Cup. A measure of Ireland’s strength in depth and the reason that they are just as much a threat to the All Blacks as England.
The season to date has been a revelation in some ways. Players are running out of contact and into space with short intensive bursts of passing. The All Blacks have shown the way – again – and have lit a touch paper. Take a look at Lyon of the Top 14 and Newcastle in their opening matches. Two unfancied teams with few stars are winning home and away with some panache. I used to call it passing out of the tackle, but even Will Greenwood is presenting a programme devoted to the offload as it is now called, and as if it is some new strategy. No, what is clear is that the attritional tactic of ‘round the corner’ popping or phase play has been rumbled. Too boring, too many injuries and unsuccessful. Long may it continue, but a rerun to videos of the past will show that the practice was alive and well until Rugby League defence and attack coaches got in the way.
Pin point passing from midfield is also developing nicely, as Toomua of Leicester has shown to date and as the Scarlets are demonstrating as a team. Their status as Pro 12 Champions last year was no fluke and they will fancy their chances in the Champions Cup this year. Cruden now at Montpellier could make even Francois Steyn look like a master centre and make a powerhouse team even more unstoppable. I have seen the throwback from a bygone era, Gavin Henson, playing with such sublime handing skills that some people are thinking of a Wales recall. He is certainly the flip side of Jamie Roberts, but if the Scarlets style of play is adopted neither of them are needed.
Being simply able to pass out of contact is welcome and due to the fact that defences are having to throttle back on the double tackle or even the high tackle. Too many yellow or red cards and stacks of injuries. The tackling technique of the modern professional player is reckless and prone to cause serious damage on both sides. There’s nothing tough about it, simply foolhardy and senseless. Who is teaching these crazy techniques? Stand up all defence coaches who are often pictured brooding in the background and growling with pleasure when a big hit goes in. Well we have had enough and by the looks of it so have the players.
By all means place a line across the shirt and then the player will know if his tackle rides up the body he could be in trouble. In addition, ban the clear out. How many more times? Then the injury count will reverse as players will realise its a very healthy option as will the coaches.
In my role as Chairman of EPCR, I have the benefit of travelling through Europe and discussing rugby issues of the days with Presidents, Owners, Administrators, Coaches and players. They all have valuable views but they are rarely combined.
The general health of players has hit the headlines, distressingly, because of record numbers of injuries. In addition to poor tackling technique and increased physicality, this is all linked in to how many games they play in a cluttered season, and not just that how much time they spend training or in a gym. Forget that the Lions trained three times in a day – because the day was there perhaps – look at what a traditional week’s training looks like at a professional club, called a ‘day at the office’.
Consider the International season, Six Nations and Autumn Internationals, plus summer tours, Lions tours and the Rugby World Cup. Then the domestic season, be it the Premiership, Pro 14 or the Top 14 in France. Finally, the blue riband European tournaments, the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. Divide them into the weeks of the year and throw in a mandated rest period and you have the problem right in front of you.
The assets, or players, are rented out for money to the Unions – in some cases – or are owned by both Unions and leagues. They also have a voice.
Why do the key people in this debate not sit round a large table and work out a compromise, before we really do some damage off the field as well as what is happening on the field.
Can anyone think of a ready made group who could discuss this and make some good decisions? I can.
No sooner did the Six Nations pass into recent history than the European Champions and Challenge Cup quarter finals burst onto the scene. I watched two games in Dublin in quick succession and it was fascinating to compare. No doubt that the stakes were high as England made their tilt for a Double Grand Slam and with Ireland apparently creaking after a disjointed performance lacking creativity in Cardiff. They also lacked their talismanic Murray and Heaslip, so surely England were not to be denied after an imperious performance against a Scotland who believed the record books from the start – i.e. no victory at HQ since 1983. Instead they had the life squeezed out of them reasonably easily and never looked like winning. The lack of intensity at the ground was almost a cunning plan hatched by the whole Irish crowd as well as the players and with minimum fuss England were marginalised and had to celebrate the 6 Nations title with a rueful smile on what may have been.
Cue the European Champions Cup Quarterfinals featuring Leinster and Wasps, full of top Internationals. The Aviva Stadium roared in anticipation and the intensity was clear from the off. Some stunning tries and consummate skill on display, with a comprehensive win for the Irishmen. I was left with a strange feeling of wondering which was the International match – all it really meant is that the when the conditions are right European club rugby is peerless in what it offers. By contrast, despite a much more entertaining Six Nations this year with many tries out of the top drawer, the results became the story in particular for England and most farcically in Paris as somehow France extended themselves for a full hundred minutes to squeeze controversially past Wales.
So, not only these two matches to savour, but after Munster predictably dismantled an ageing Toulouse the European semifinal will be again at the Aviva between Munster and Saracens – almost too good to be true. Talking of whom, you had to be present at Allianz Park to realise just how impressive were the marauding Saracens. Even the best All Black performance would have stood scrutiny to this. On arrival however , all you could hear or see were bagpipes and the sky blue of the Glasgow Warriors.It was impressive and unique given this travelling support exceeded recent home crowds of the Warriors. I loved their supporters chant but it left Sarries unfazed. They ripped Glasgow to pieces with irresistible rugby and with no little skill. Four possible tries other than the ones they scored in the first half, all corner flag affairs. This was no squeeze but a demolition job. Glasgow looked shocked and so were we. They will come again for sure , and they stayed strong as you would expect with so many Internationals in the squad. However, Farrell’s supreme performance eclipsed even Sexton in Dublin and Wrigglesworth confounded previous opinion about his limitations. It is tempting to say that they cannot be bettered on this form, but they will be the third English side in recent weeks to travel optimistically to the Irish Capital.They are the defending Champions and by no means squeaking through their big games, so the momentum is with them if they can cope with Irish passion and a Munster who are playing with their hearts on their sleeve.
Lastly, I risk ignoring the French at my peril. The National Side may be flattering to deceive at present, but La Rochelle is the real deal. The seaside town on the Atlantic coats is the runaway leader gf the Top 14 and now contesting the Challenge Cup semifinals against Gloucester . I saw them dismantle Toulon on their home patch and while that is no longer such a feat it was still mighty impressive in their pace and ball handling, uniquely in France with the exception of the giants of Europe, Clermont Auvergne. The Yellow and Blues will fancy themselves against Leinster in Lyon near their heartland and so guaranteed a massive home support. The shock away win by Stade Francais against the Ospreys means that they will face down a legion of Bath Internationals on their home patch- this is an achievement in itself given that they were nearly a non-club last week. Watch out for more corporate club action as many struggle financially.
For now, let us celebrate a quarterfinals to remember and the best semifinals in prospect for many years.