Thrills And Spills Dominate The Season’s Opening As New Attacking Style Dominates


Following a close season that didn’t really exist, courtesy of The Lions Tour and the Womens Rugby World Cup, there was a very fresh feel to the opening two weekends of Club rugby which augurs well for the coming months.

A Look Back

My prediction of an England Red Roses/New Zealand White Ferns final was not exactly visionary, but the nature of the contest was not predicted at all. The professionals of England were outlasted by a turbo charged New Zealand in the last quarter showing that an attacking tactical plan can outweigh basic fitness when the pressure is on. Their close quarter pace game destroyed England, and the men’s team showed it to perfection with their last Bledisloe Cup try against the Aussies. Take a look at the way in which a number of players running different angles attacked close in to the ruck or maul using their handling skills to shift the emphasis and direction of attack. It is indefensible and Saracens did exactly the same thing in their opener against Northampton. The way in which Brits, Burger, Wriggleworth and Wray handled their way into the heart of the Saint’s defence is showing the new benchmark. Others are copying this attack plan and watch out for more this season, even Northampton Saints brought out their own version against the Tigers!

Thankfully, at last the game is moving away from the boring one-dimensional biff of ‘coming around the corner’ and ‘going through the phases’ as it is called. England, in Argentina anyway, have started to push the boundaries and must do so again this year to maintain their development which stuttered a little last year as they coped with a new-found position at the top of the European game. Perhaps the clubs are showing the way!

This has also been driven by some of the law changes at the breakdown where that negative skill called ‘jackalling’ handed far too much power back to the defender and now there is quicker ball to use.

Elsewhere, the Scarlets blitzed the new boys from South Africa, the Kings. Despite some flashes out wide there was nothing to suggest anything regal about their performances but it is early days. Also, this doesn’t give enough credit to the Scarlets who are the story of Europe, two crushing victories last year over Munster and Leinster in Dublin were unthinkable not so long ago. If their style feeds through to the national team there could be some fun in the Six Nations this year.

Week 2

If there is a better fullback in the Northern Hemisphere than Anthony Watson then please send me the name. He was awesome against Saracens this weekend in a true thriller of a match and England won’t win the World Cup without him there – prediction. Jerry Guscott watched him alongside me and was a little concerned about his unpredictability (seriously??) and that sealed it for me. As Bath remain unbeaten after two the key theme for me is team spirit. Finishing games against top opposition with 13 or 14 men is not ideal but the work ethic is exceptional – reminds me of another era, we await more evidence.

Elsewhere it was a reversion to a norm after the opening weekend’s fireworks. Worcester Warriors will hand out some headaches and bruises but look worryingly short of quality, but the Quins finishers Yarde and Walker are looking very sharp. Together with ‘Roko’, Nowell and Jonny May England are blessed with top wingers that others can only envy.

In France, La Rochelle’s 50 point thumping of the Champions Clermont has confirmed their arrival at the top table if it was needed, and Harlequins will have made note ahead of their Champions Cup opener. Vern Cotter, fresh from elevating Scotland to 4th in the world, has steered Montpellier to the top after 3 matches, but we all know that on their day any French team can turn in a performance so it’s way too early to call.

Four matches in and no wins so far for the South Africans or the Italians, but no-one wins titles in September and I continue to love the ‘Scarlet way’, perhaps Wales will adopt such a style and then we are talking.

Final Thought

Anyone bored of seeing interminable box kicking? The worst thing is that they are unfailingly poorly placed and offer wonderful counter attack opportunities to the opposition. Back in the day the scrumhalf would get a verbal lashing from the backs and a lot worse from the long-suffering forwards. Where is the logic, only a matter of time before the videos tell a story.

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.