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.

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.

 

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.

No Luck In This Irish Slam!


Why did I imagine that Ireland was not good enough for a Grand Slam – nerveless (40 plays before the miracle Sexton drop goal in Paris), clinical (Italy), and coldly predatory (Scotland and Wales), before rendering the tumultuous St Patrick’s Day clash somewhat academic after 40 remarkable minutes at Twickenham. Trying to stay warm became a major consideration as England struggled to make a statement in the closing stages against an Ireland team which was calmness personified. This group of players can definitely win a World Cup (no pressure because no track record) but for now let us salute some hardbitten forwards, world class half backs and a number of inspirational game breakers who may be highly influential next year – Stockdale, Ringrose, Larmour and Carberry. Worthy Grand Slam Champions without a doubt and a European Cup also awaits if they can keep the intensity (well rested of course, very few of their key players pulled on a shirt this past weekend other than to keep the sun off their backs).

Elsewhere, Wales blooded their youngsters impressively, and Gatland has a spring in his step as he has real depth of quality now in his squad. They feel they should have beaten England (shhh) so the season could have been even better. The Scarlets await La Rochelle this weekend in the Champions Cup and with Cardiff riding high in Pro 14 and quarterfinalist in the Challenge Cup there are reasons to be cheerful in the Land of our Fathers.

France will take heart from their campaign despite no flyhalf in sight, and while more roundhead than cavalier these days they will only get better after a dismal time. I say that because they now have a rock hard defence and at last one or two flair players to celebrate as long as it’s on the field of play. One point defeats to Wales and Ireland – both games they should have won – are a sign of recovery and what may have been.

Which sums up Italy – their winless campaign was misleading and they had plenty to offer this year especially in attack. Parisse is waning, but Negri and Polledri could both make it into the England team, and Minozzi at fullback is a genius.

Scotland produced the half of the tournament against England, and the trio of Russell, Jones and Hogg provide essential star quality to match the reinvigorated forward effort which is bearing fruit at every level now. Their excellence in the back row and midfield is the key, as for any team wanting to be the best in the world.

Which brings me to England and their inability to find mix and balance in those areas. In a world of process and centralised instruction, this is where the coaching and selection matters and we saw little of it. Overtrained, fatigued, lacking leadership and passion are the media’s favourite clamours (after two successive championships mind you) …… something of everything I suppose, on my shopping list is an attack coach which will be a start, the current strategy is not easy to see or appreciate. More generally, forget 5th position and think more about being conclusively outplayed for long periods of the tournament. That is also what’s worrying the powers that be at Twickenham who simultaneously are trying to raise returns while the performance goes in the other direction. England supporters (the right ones) may just be a little more savvy than that.

All in all, the pundits were right so let us raise a glass of the black stuff to our friends across the Irish Sea. Maith thú!

‘Le’ Crunch Time For England


I should have known better than risk a visit to Murrayfield with a Scottish team ready to hand out a reminder to England and others that they are a sustainable force again in world rugby. No doubt about that, and it was in the way they won rather than just the result. A cloudless sky and not a breath of wind would not traditionally favour a Scottish team let us be honest. But by the end you had to imagine that they took so much more from the game in terms of their World Cup development.
For England it was both sobering and worrying that they lost key battles in the back row and midfield. All that Italian promise unconverted. The lack of quick front foot ball was one reason (analysed to death by the media but given the back row picked totally obvious) and a lack of leadership another, as in Ireland last year. You think back to a few games in which Eddie’s men have pulled the game out of the fire with some smart ‘finishing’ and it leaves you with that nagging doubt of a team flatlining not developing as expected. 
 
France will build themselves up for the England match by stoking the fires of hostility legendary in Brian Moore’s day when we came up against the full force not only of Gallic strong-arm tactics but unmatchable flair. Not much of the latter these days (except for Teddy Thomas), but they also defend well so England have to find a special inner strength which they say they have. We will see, and if Bastareaud’s new status as leader and line breaker – 18 carries went 34 metres against Italy! – is the benchmark then this is a game which surely carries no fears especially into the last 20 minutes when we know the French will be feeling the pace.
 
Has Ireland ever gone to Twickenham to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s day? That is a wild notion but entirely possible if they down the Scots this weekend – who themselves can lift the Six Nations title if certain results go their way. The word I am starting to use for Ireland is relentless, based on the Leinster model of holding the ball for minutes at a time. But this doesn’t look like a Grand Slam team to me, and a pumped up England team (especially if they lose to France) will be playing for their World Cup futures so become very difficult to beat.
 
Finally, Wales’ new open style will allow Italy to express themselves and they will look back at the Treviso performance against Scarlets in the Champions Cup and take heart.
 
The Six Nations has been true to predictions, wafer thin margins between defeat and victory. Wales could be unbeaten, so could France…… I sense more surprises to come but nothing which is really causing the All Blacks to reach for the smelling salts – yet.
H.

Scotland Await England – In Hope More Than Expectation


You know something is afoot when Sir Ian McGeechan featured some of the greatest Calcutta Cup clashes in his weekly article in the Sunday Telegraph. I happened to have played in six of those games back in the 80’s and 90’s and they were all titanic struggles. The implication is that this weekend will be another one of those but I am not so sure. Scotland appear to have believed their own press from the Autumn Internationals – including mine! A cardinal error which was almost repeated against a French side which hasn’t won in months and had only one player, Teddy Thomas, to thank for a ray of hope thus far in the Six Nations.

England are apparently flatlining with an unconvincing win over a Scarlets-dominated Wales, or are they. Appalling conditions were just what the doctor ordered for the free running Welshmen, within 20 minutes England had scored twice and tactically embarrassed the men in Red. But there it stayed and by the end we were wondering if they were plain lucky after some Welsh near misses. I disagree – you can only beat what is in front of you, this is a fine Welsh team, and everyone is improving so by definition so is England. They just seem to get away with not playing much sustained rugby, with flashes of try scoring brilliance and the peerless Farrell directing affairs. It could be that they are developing the priceless ability to make the opposition believe that they simply cannot win. Is this the real Jones impact?

Is there a case for Scotland against whom England tends to lose only every now and then, usually from complacency? The dry weather forecast will help the Scots, but there is no point eulogising about Stuart Hogg’s class because England will snuff him out if there are no other threats. Finn Russell’s inexplicable ‘laissez faire’ attitude towards the game right now would have him out of the team if there was an alternative but there isn’t. He could have a horrible day at Murrayfield, especially as Eddie Jones has now chosen to big him up, or else all that will backfire and he has a blinder! Bottom line is that if only one Scotsman gets into the England team on merit then there should be only one result, and the psychology of last year’s hammering will be lurking under the surface.

It is ironic that the only in form flair player the French seem to have, Teddy Thomas, has ruled himself out with off field discretions, as if it could get any worse. People forget they were within an inch of being two from two but instead face an unlikely challenge from the desperate Italians, whose partial revival at club level cannot yet match the general uplift in standards of every else. It is their best chance for a win this year – I wonder.

Wales’ season rests on a triumph in Dublin so nothing to lose and they can definitely do it – Ireland has yet to click this season and, if so they will be relentless, but in my opinion it is anyone’s match.

Back to England and their approaching date with history – are they really to be denied their tilt at glory by this Scottish team, talented but maverick and not really of the standard of their great sides of the 80’s and early 90’s when they really did send the English ‘homewards tae think again.’ I think not, but then that’s what we imagined in 1990……..

H.

SCARLET FEVER BREAKS OUT AS PACEY ENGLAND AWAIT


The Six Nations got off to a mixed start last weekend as two cracking openers sandwiched a real stodge of a match in France, where neither side deserved to win or lose in all honesty.
 
Eddie Jones got it right when he said that European form did not matter for his England Squad. However, it absolutely impacted on Wales. The Scarlet influence coursed through the team from front to back – Rhys Patchell may have called the end of the Biggar era, and Steff Evans must already be one of Europe’s top wingers.  Aaron Shingler is a former top cricketer, but no doubting his skills at the Millennium. Perhaps they will make Alun Wyn-Jones an honorary Scarlet for his sensational running performance! 
 
In all truth, back in my day it was not sensible to pick a group of players from the same club to replicate their club form onto the International stage (e.g.Bath or Neath). The gap was simply too wide but not now, as top European performances these days can easily translate into an International one and so it has proved with Wales. Perhaps we can look at Glasgow’s poor away form for a clue as to how Scotland played in Cardiff (or Twickenham last year!). However, a bounce back is certain against a desperate French team, truly ‘Les Misérables.’
 
All the chatter for Saturday is about the Welsh flair and fitness being too much for England and throwbacks to 2015 when they spotted the fatigue of the England pack….. I just don’t buy it, although memories of that day in October Rugby Word Cup year are enough to make you shudder. Likely more to spur England on rather than give them nightmares. England is easily fit enough and will not be outflanked by the free running Scarlet waves. Their use of the bench (this topic needs reviewing by World Rugby) is world class. Mostly because their strength in depth is so awesome that the bench can be better than the starting line up!
 
Anyone who has been reading my ‘blogs’ over the last few years will know I have had little good to say about the England midfield. That changed last weekend, not because Italy are worldbeaters of course. The lines of running and positional play of the outside runners at last was spot on, and our best players were being given the time and space. No coincidence that Mike Brown was marshalling resources from deep rather than spearheading attacks. No more arguments about 12, over 4 years many pretenders have had a go. Owen Farrell is nailed on there and would also be at 10 if another inside centre existed of any quality.
 
Lastly, experience does count. Note Eddie Jones asking about Rhys Patchell’s temperament – canny! He has little knowledge of Twickenham and Aaron Shingler has never been there! These things matter. It will be a huge challenge that an inexperienced Wales put up but England should eventually win comfortably in my opinion. My justified nervousness about the quality of Englands winning performances last year have been put to one side because they simply HAVE to build momentum here. A step back at this stage will be very bad news indeed.
 
What I really want is a thumping Scottish win and a return of all their injured players for the Calcutta Cup on the 24th. What a prospect and this could be England’s biggest test, not facing a rather predictable Irish team at Twickenham.
 
But for now, nothing I like more than a bunch of optimistic Welshmen (Mae’r ddraig yn anadlu tân) beating a path to Twickenham to confront an England team waiting with points to prove.
 
 
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!!

Hallers Christmas Blog


As the Autumn Internationals played out, followed by two tumultuous European weekends, there has been much to admire as well as ponder as we approach a seasonal period of rest and reflection – unless you are a professional rugby player who isn’t banned or injured in which case not much of either. 

First the good news – I was asked two years ago whether I was concerned about the Irish amid the Anglo-French dominance in the Champions Cup and I suggested they would be back sooner than anyone thought – so it proved. First they provided two semifinalists last year. Then, two weeks ago, a fully refreshed Leinster took the English Champions Exeter down on their own ground and resisted their best efforts the following week. Munster under Rassie Erasmus has injected pace and power into their youngsters and their toothless semifinal against Saracens is a distant memory after their double over Leicester. A compelling set of performances by Ulster could pay dividends, and meantime Connacht is unbeaten in the Challenge Cup. A ruthless Autumn series has left Ireland looking at Twickenham with real confidence and while the Calcutta Cup is going to be tumultuous, England v Ireland will be something else again.

You could argue that the performance of the French team in the Autumn was nothing short of disastrous but they are in good shape in Europe, sporting their multinational squads. A rejuvenated Clermont look dominant and the rising star of La Rochelle have illuminated the competition, while Montpellier and Racing 92 lurk dangerously. I love the look of Rounds 5 and 6 with Toulon, Bath and Scarlets all in the hunt in their pool.

As for the English, I presume Eddie Jones finalised his extra squad members this Autumn because little else was established than Daly’s star quality. At the club level  some signs of mid season tiredness but there is no margin for error in Europe.

More worryingly… here we are again, and whether accidental or deliberate the number of damaging head contacts continues apace. Donnacha Ryan, an influential International name, has called it ‘a blight on the game’ and calls for action. In my opinion tackling targeted above the shoulders could be called automatically yellow and possibly red with a minimum six week ban. Then people will stop doing it. The only thing about the game that is going soft is in the coaching diktat which demands high tackling to stop the offload. Plain wrong.

Do I need to mention the clear out again? Ask Faletau how he feels about his knee ligament injury caused by exactly that by Mathieu Basteraud

To end on a positive and festive note however, the Northern Hemisphere rugby world is buzzing at most levels and the Rugby Club Christmas parties and carol-singing will be in fine voice.

To anyone who is still reading my piece at the end of a long but fulfilling year, thank you for that, and my New Year hopes and fears will be with you well before the old year rings out.

A Merry and peaceful Christmas to you all.

H