Scarlets Breathe Fire Into The Champions Cup


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!

What a sensational game it was, you had to be there to hear the passion of the sell out crowd who sing Welsh arias like no other and whose team played their dragon size hearts out to claim a home quarterfinal. This Champions Cup has not only come alive but scaled the heights in these pool stages with the climax this weekend past – and Scarlets will fancy that their style of play can challenge even the clear favourites Leinster. After some stunning interplay they had to withstand waves of Toulon attacks and their heroic defence showed its mettle, a key ingredient as a few other sides have found  out this year. The other newcomers La Rochelle  have lit the touch paper themselves this year, and will be unafraid to visit Parc y Scarlets. This quarterfinal will be epic.
 
Elsewhere, I pay credit to every team who had a sniff of a chance and gave it everything but fell short – Wasps, Bath, Ulster, Castres – and just as much to the likes of Glasgow, Harlequins, Northampton and Leicester (eventually) who played with much pride with nothing to go for. Anyone see Hogg’s performance against Exeter ?
 
Outside the tie of the round in Wales, Leinster v Saracens is as heavyweight as it comes and will not be for the fainthearted. Stuart Lancaster will see it as his biggest test yet, and no doubt the Aviva Stadium will be the venue. An International in everything but name and more besides given the status of past versus present Champions.
 
Is there a crisis in England, only one club represented? I was asked two years ago whether Celtic rugby would ever challenge Anglo-French domination again after the Saracens v Clermont final. Only English and French teams in the last 8 that year – I laughed out loud and suggested that Celtic Rugby may have a thing or two to say about that and look at them now! My answer is the same now for the English who will not be offering up excuses. It is true though that the Premiership, Champions/Challenge Cup and International schedule is bruising for the English players, witness all their injuries and the intensity of every game.  Scratched record time on some integrated thinking for the English game and everyone else because the injury count is unacceptable in that context.
 
In the Challenge Cup, I haven’t seen a much better game than at Gloucester on Friday night, where Pau justified their status with a comprehensive win and look very good value in a quarterfinal line-up featuring all the major nations including defending champions Stade Francais who actually lost their opening match against the Russians in Krasnoyarsk! Again, a wonderful mix of teams including Cardiff, Edinburgh and Connacht and it will take a mighty fine performance to win it this year.
 
As we take a breath and look to the Six Nations, Eddie felt compelled to defend the underperforming English clubs – and to be fair, players too – suggesting that this is no guide to International performance. Maybe not, but it does not help. I suspect that the Welsh and the Irish would like to bottle what their regions have served up and deliver it straight onto the International table. If only life was so simple …… ask Saracens, who live to fight another day but it was close and they will have to do it the hard way this year, starting in Dublin. Bring on April!
H.

Pool Stages Reach Crescendo In Europe


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 feature of last weeks European Rugby was the sheer uncertainty of who will progress to the knock out stages. When combined with some magical games of top quality, it was a weekend to remember. The sheer diversity of the performances made the chairman very happy. Newcastle, Cardiff, Pau, Connacht and Gloucester have stormed into the QuarterF inals and with an automatic place on offer in the Champions Cup all these sides will be giving it full throttle in April.
 
In the Champions Cup, only one side guaranteed of progress – Leinster, was a dream scenario leading up to Round 6 and 14 teams with a chance of making the KO stages. You had to pinch yourself to see Scarlets unravelling Bath on their home ground. Llanelli v Bath was once one of the titanic club games in the calendar, playing for the Rag Doll, and an updated version of the Doll was being flourished by ecstatic Scarlets players as they destroyed a side who had everything to play for. Anthony Watson will not have enjoyed being sidestepped by Tadgh Beirne en route to possibly the try of the season but it was a comment on the stunning play of the Welshmen. Oh for the Wales National team to play with a similar style – it is the only way they will carry off the Six Nations.
 
Elsewhere, it is manifestly clear that the ambition required to succeed at these rarefied levels is unprecedented. Wasps were irresistible in a must win game v Harlequins only to be reeled in by Marcus Smith and his suddenly energised back line who played their own brand of unstoppable pace rugby. Racing threw everything at Munster in the match of the round in the wonderful U Arena in Paris, their narrow win adding to the list of wannabes for the next stages. While not seeing any obvious saviours for the French team, in Munster colours the dazzling Keith Earls caught the eye constantly. Ironically, Donnacha Ryan showed his former team that age is just a number with an amazing performance of passion and yes pace. U Arena with its covered roof, stunning technology, a constant blur of sound and light, all round luxurious seating and pitch view has set a new benchmark for club rugby.
 
So, a weekend of clashes to jangle the rugby nerves that seems unprecedented to me for any tournament anywhere anytime.
 
Who wants to be the Champion, we will find out a little more by Monday!!

TACKLING NOT ALWAYS A PAINFUL ISSUE


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.

H.

European Clubs Go International As Saracens Set The Standard


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.
H