European Club Finals An Exceptional Showcase As Gamechanging Decisions Loom Large


Was it really 6 weeks ago that Saracens took their game to new levels by shutting out Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup Final. It was a ruthless show of how to close out a pressure game from behind – a true International game in club jerseys. All played out in a sporting hotbed that was Newcastle. The irony of their relegation showed the dysfunction in the game nationwide. The North needs top class rugby not relegation and bankruptcy, Yorkshire Carnegie now effectively bust. Benign neglect in the case of the latter, so unacceptable when even limited vision could have changed this outcome.

Another International clash as Glasgow Warriors stormed the Leinster stronghold for the Pro 14 Crown and only just failed despite the strongest challenge. I have called the Scottish revival for a while and it is real and vibrant. They have finally got it right off the field and look what happens. A World Cup surprise could await – replay the second half of the England game if you doubt me. Meantime a just return for the Irishmen and if you think they are a busted flush, listen to the intent in Sexton’s rebuttal that they have peaked too early. I like that language, they will come again.

The Premiership Final was a triumph – Gallagher must have been smiling. On field The Cheifs did everything right other than the last 20 minutes. The great Bath teams never lost that piece of the game, and Sarries provided their own masterclass. Liam Williams pound for pound is the best player in the world currently and the performance of the Saracens big names in the closing stages was truly remarkable. England genuinely have no excuses in Japan……when you add in the exceptional Slade and Nowell at Twickenham the crowd were thrilled like at no other time in the last 12 months. I truly love the Chiefs and the next step is to turn the hurt into big wins.

Finally an error strewn Top 14 Final could not take away the shining rays of hope streaming from the Toulousains – their supporter chant is wonderfully threatening and meaningful, their squad and club are going places, and not just in France. Cheslin Kolbe is already one of the world’s best as a game changer, what a talent! A word also for Clermont who are a wonderful rugby family and that is it really – the best rugby families are winning now despite their Stade de France disappointment. It’s culture not just training, process and grimfaced physicality.

With Europe in mind, the scrap in the last couple of league weekends to make it into Europe shows the order of things in a good place – Montpellier, Sale, Bath, Ospreys were all smiling at the end.

Lastly, by the end of week the rugby world will know how the game may or may not change for both hemispheres. Big meetings are in train. I do not think that the world’s administrators need any further reminders of the growing jewels in our club game, attracting huge crowds as destination rugby takes hold. I say embrace this because it’s not going away, only becoming stronger. Entirely complimentary to an International game where ‘less is more’ as we were told by the CEO of World Rugby himself. As for the money, it is all about allocation and clear thinking, always has been. Step forward some clear thinkers please.

Very finally, some strong words at the beginning of the season on disciplinary matters finally got through and changes are making our game safer. If that is work in progress, we should ignore at our peril the issues for all our players worldwide. The pathway to a sustainable post career life is full of potholes and it has to change. My question is for rugby’s leaders – what are you doing for the players? In a world of investment, media interest, global trends, do NOT treat the player as a wasting asset. Or else they will become exactly that and we cannot allow it.

Let us meantime celebrate the season, and look forward with excitement to Japan – the game is on the rise no doubt and we must all harness the growth – at every level.

Wales Hunt A Grand Slam As Italy Seeks Redemption Against The French


It was said that England lost the Rugby World Cup Final of 1991 against Australia through inflexibility. Our narrative was that we felt our strategy was going to work, and then it didn’t! The Campese deliberate knock down hardly helped but we didn’t mix up our game enough to keep the Aussies guessing when the game was there for the taking.

So it was in Cardiff, when nobody really believed that England’s kicking based approach would work again on it’s own but they persisted and the game slipped away. Why not give that new look midfield a bit of ball. But no. Then on Saturday against Italy the equivalent of cricket’s ‘flat track bully’ (remember Graeme Hick) was in evidence and any side would have struggled against that power. Rumour abounds that Jones wants to try the Ford/Farrell axis again this weekend, well why not perhaps in the last 20 minutes.

Surely people can see what is happening here! Journos have too much space to fill now and are refuelling on new stories wherever they look. Jones seems to be trying to make sure he is equipped for any strategy and of course he has at his disposal the deepest playing resource in the world. As we sit here, England has all the on-field diversity that it needs. The biggest question is whether they can flex the strategy when faced with challenges, as with Wales. That is a mental thing and the answer will not come on Saturday as a feeble excuse for a grudge match unfolds. Scotland is riven with injury and Jones may extract some personal revenge as will the team after last year. With it could come the Six Nations Title of course, lest anyone forget!

NB the Farrell/Tuilagi/Slade midfield is the one they need to win a World Cup.

The big one in Cardiff is tough to call. Ireland is arguably a team which has peaked too early and trying desperately to hold the level, while Wales has already achieved something incredible against their resource backdrop and domestic turmoil. Huge credit to the coaches and the squad. A wonderful end to a tournament which has been disappointing in so many ways. The much anticipated level playing field was tarnished by French ‘laissez faire’, Scottish injuries and an improving Italy failing to match a general upturn in standards. It rendered half the matches meaningless and although I wasn’t there, the second half of the France and Italy games at Twickenham apparently resembled a multi thousand strong drinks and networking occasion rather than a properly competitive atmosphere.

For what it’s worth, I think that emotion and home advantage should see Wales edge Ireland but not by much. In which case they and England will progress to the Rugby World Cup as strong contenders for at least a semifinal place. Make no mistake though, England is the unknown quantity and a team to fear. How things change in a year.

Finally, I wonder if Italy smell an upset in the Rome sunshine against the French. They have offered enough in attack to indicate their capabilities and they know how to sustain their effort. No-one will forget Nick Mallett’s tears as he coached Parisse and his men to glory a few years ago against ‘Les Bleus’ – it was special and could happen again.

H

So Here It Is… The England Midfield At Last


There comes a time when an English rugby team has suffered enough, certainly after two humbling defeats against the Irish in past years depriving them of silverware in one case and suffering in silence their grand slam celebrations at Twickenham in another.  England had all the psychological advantages against a country which carried uneasily the mantle of the world’s best side, itself unprecedented.  Ireland felt a need to control that position and manage it, not throw it away and confront what was coming at them.  Indeed England had warned as much!

In addition, their two form second rows were injured, Sexton and Murray were undercooked from injury and the Henshaw experiment was interesting but unnecessary.  Their midfield was a real mess and the kicking game rather average – the space against England is out wide but it never happened.  Interesting that Schmidt chose not to employ Carbery or Larmour two more form players.  In the post match interviews he sounded accepting of the reality check.  Time will tell if this is a blip – I suspect so.  But enough of the excuses, let us praise England undilutedly.

My last piece talked of payback and what it takes to deliver – this was it.  In hunting down this Irish team into every corner and across every blade of grass, two sublime passes from England’s now nailed on midfield created two winning tries.  My long held but frustrated admiration of Slade was gloriously justified and he has such great awareness of space.  Tuilagi was asked to do exactly what he can so well – batter through and keep the ball for the next phase.  Jonny May will never play a better game for his country and Daly is world class, never any question of a doubt there. PLEASE do not change this backline.

Jones’ prematch commentary was respectful of the occasion and his players, almost embracing normality – another welcome shift and he also made his best selection yet.  Payback indeed from the players exclusively and what a test match, credit to both sides and a privilege to watch.

Meantime, I know about Greeks bearing gifts, but French bonhomie hit the heights in the Stade de France on Friday night as a scarcely deserving Welsh team took home the spoils, and George North who was rather average apart from his two tries somehow was somehow man of a very soggy match.  Liam Williams was in fact a class apart and the one bright spot.  France could ship 50 at Twickenham especially if they allow Hail Mary passes from Second row forwards but I bet they don’t… the psychological boot is on the other foot.  But Gatland is right, Wales have forgotten how to lose and France needs more than Gallic shrug and a change of fortune.

Anyone spot the new man Sam Johnson doing some smart things in the Scottish midfield against Italy?  Probably won’t trouble the better teams quite yet, but I like the look of him and Scotland will definitely fancy their chances this weekend with Russell and Hogg also in stellar form.
Anyone thinking about Wales v England yet??!!
Amid the 6 Nations romance, the 14th Feb is not far off now so go to www.sportingwineclub.com for inspiration! There’s more to life than rugby!
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.

Club Watch – England


Standards everywhere are steaming higher – even with the globe trotting Barbarians. They operated at a pace which stunned some top England players over the weekend and leaves you worrying for their individual ability to cope with more of the same in Japan next year. Jones may wish to stop analysing too much and pick from Saracens and Exeter with a few from the rest. It could be that obvious.

What else is becoming obvious? Farrell has to play in his pivotal position and how about Slade at 12. That combination is threatening and potent and can feed a fast running outside set of backs, of which England has plenty. Let it thrive and Ford is always there as back up. The Vunipola show gets better and I like the look of Isikwe…..back row pace and power is critical and he has a lot of both.

H.