A Rugby World In Union In 2019?


It was easy to eulogise about the Irish last year – they have the best set up in World rugby and their results were no fluke at National and provincial level. Rarely can Twickenham have been silenced so easily on a big match day as when a chilly first half made Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam aspirations a reality and England disappeared into the March murkiness.

Meantime another first half, this time at sunny Murrayfield, saw Scotland dismember a slow starting England and have the game won by the break. My head was in my hands on why I had gone there against my better judgement (I played 4 times there back in the day and it’s always painful whatever the result), but in the end I was admiring Scotland’s true class.

If 2018 was the last chance to experiment before Japan, then the other abiding memory was the extreme pace and wit of South Africa, winning in NZ and then comfortably seeing off England. Faf Du Klerk and his red-hot Springbok wide runners will light up the World Cup and give them a genuine chance of winning.

I may be giving England a hard time but that was their year. Selection and fitness will be critical now for Japan – no time for anything else, then back themselves for some one-off surprises.

So what about 2019? A couple of early pointers……

CVC’s arrival in rugby is an inflection point make no mistake, and it seems to have given the Premiership a shot in the arm immediately. Drama everywhere and a stirring up Manchester way is attracting attention. Meeting Simon Orange recently, Sale Sharks’ new owner, with the wise old heads of Fran Cotton and Steve Smith not far away, was to sense a real passion and commitment. Steve Diamond divides opinion but his players love him. Talking of Du Klerk he is unleashing their backline which looks the most potent in the Premiership bar none.  It is a small squad, but if they can all stay fit watch out everyone. Oh and Sam James is very very underrated.

It seems counterintuitive given that Les Bleus lost to Fiji last November, but French rugby is on fire. Racing 92, Clermont and Toulouse have taken ‘offloading’ to a different level in Europe and Top 14. Breath-taking to watch and surely France can make something out of all this even if Nakarawa, Zebo and Russell can never be ‘coqs sportifs’.

 

HEALTH WATCH

Tragically, four young rugby related deaths in France over the last year have caused soul searching and across the game at large, at last. Players must change behaviour and also be protected, sometimes from themselves, referees must be given clarity and authority and combine that with some empathy, and administrators turn talk into action through law changes. We are trying hard in Europe but it’s a global issue – come in, World Rugby, as soon as you like. Recent pronouncements indicate action coming.

PS Some stunning clashes coming up in Europe this weekend starting tonight at Gloucester – what Brexit ?

H.

Eastern Promise From A Dramatic Rugby Fortnight


As if the drama of England’s near miss over the All Blacks two weekends ago wasn’t enough, the Springbok’s two tries (one disallowed) in overtime eventually killed off a valiant French challenge in Paris. But more was to come as Ireland finally lived up to a favourite’s billing by downing the men in Black last Saturday evening and installed themselves as the team to beat next year in Japan. Meantime, Wales quietly build momentum and love being under the radar screen. Yes, all six of the above teams in my opinion can win the Rugby World Cup which is a wonderful competitive prospect.

England no longer at sixes and sevens – the old saying was all to do with which Livery company was ranked sixth (1st tier) or seventh (2nd Tier) in the Lord Mayor’s parade and so they took turns. England can cease their 6.5 policy and install Underhill and Curry as their 7’s and worry about the rest afterwards. Underhill was man of the match against New Zealand and is the real deal. However, I am not sure that Jones has learnt too much else this autumn other than he needs to look after Owen Farrell.

Pace and power wins matches – remember South Africa should have beaten England so they could have been 3/3 and are a real threat – a very young side with stunning pace out wide.

Japan rise up – Brighton 2015 was no fluke. Their ball skills, pace and ambition at Twickenham were world class against England who were simply embarrassed and could have been 20 points down at half time (gulp, I also played against Japan some years ago at Twickenham and we were losing at half time so I know the feeling!). The great French teams of the past, the Wales Grand Slammers of the 70’s and the best club sides of any era, Bath included, could only have sat back and admired them. I wonder whether they could threaten a quarter final spot in their home country… this from a team who have regular jobs alongside their rugby – who says you have to train every hour of the day to push the boundaries! And can there be a better flanker in the world than Michael Leitch?

Ireland showed amazing control at the weekend combined with an intensity that sets them apart and Peter O’Mahoney gets a mention alongside Leitch! Their depth also means they will be a serious force for the first time in a World Cup’s latter stages – the All Blacks will lick their wounds and come back stronger after some weeks on beach duty and we should not forget the relative levels of energy of the two hemispheres at this stage in their respective seasons. Being held tryless was heroic by Ireland but that won’t happen very often.

Lastly – player behaviour is slowly changing in the tackle area with one or two exceptions which were left unpunished, which was a step back, but the direction of travel is clear. Onward.

H.

Money Starts To Talk As The Premiership Heats Up


It’s World Cup Year (almost), and rugby seemingly makes headlines on a daily basis.  Journos are back to their editors with begging bowls for more space – they will get it too.

Where to start? Down South….

Good news for Argentina, they win a match in the Rugby Championship to match their Jaguares form having been written off a while ago. Not such good news for England’s World Cup pool when the sleeping giant that is France also seems on the move. Off field, Gus Pichot of World Rugby should think twice before upsetting the entire Northern Hemisphere or perhaps there is a plan.

Is Australia in a spiral or is this just a blip caused by injury and poor form – they don’t travel well in November so all the Home Nations will expect to win. No pressure then.

The All Blacks had to lose sometime and it was self inflicted after all. Mind you, 36 points shipped at home is still eye-watering. They may lose again to either Ireland (probable) or England (a one-off) this November but it would be healthy for the World Cup favourites to know they have some stiff competition.

South Africa is an unknown quantity – when the game is fast and loose anything can happen as we saw, they have pace and game-breakers, very un Springbok-like. In wet conditions,
well, ask England!

In Europe, financially refreshed Stade Francais is riding high in the Top 14 alongside Toulouse, who both carry the largest budgets in the league but play with great style, Clermont making an early season statement too and to think they are in the Challenge Cup. Together with Lyon, they are rivalling the juggernauts of Toulon and Montpellier who need to sharpen their play as well as their chequebooks. I predicted a French revival having seen their play at times against the All Blacks this summer and they remain a dangerous threat to known rankings one year out from the World Cup.

I had to smile wryly as my old Financial world came hurtling into Rugby in the form of CVC’s interest in the Premiership, especially as media and others tried to make clumsy sense of it. Only one point to make – rugby valuations are going up and that is a good thing for everyone.  Eddie Jones liked the look of England’s win in the wet at Cape Town apparently but I prefer the first twenty minutes of the other two test matches. There is some serious form being showed in the Premiership early season to persuade him he can persist with the ambition – not so dull after all and certain new players are already putting their hand up for next year’s World Cup. Don’t pick the squad yet!!

H.

Rugby Wings Take Centre Stage As Beach Beckons


The bad news for England over the weekend comes from an unusual source and will not get any headlines. For the first time in recent memory France showed their true rugby colours and offered a glimpse of what my generation of rugby players experienced every time we saw them take the field. For most of the first half they were irresistible, forwards and backs linking at pace and playing the ball out of the tackle at will. A quite ridiculous piece of referee obstruction cost them momentum and parity with the All Blacks, whose superior fitness and brutal focus on their two game changers, MacKenzie and Ioane, saw them run riot by the end. By the time the World Cup comes along this rate of progress and one or two of their stellar U20 world champions could make them the team to beat – and they are in England’s pool! French holidays on the Cote D’Azur will be laced with optimism for the season ahead.

Elsewhere Ireland have earnt the right to be the form team in the world. It is their match against New Zealand that I await with most anticipation in the autumn. Over-reliance on Sexton and Murray perhaps, but less so, as an avalanche of quality forwards combined with defence based on an indomitable spirit shine through. It was needed as Australia were fearsome and will feel hard done by not to squeeze a victory. Ireland may have raised the bar, with Stockdale now looking world class on the wing, but the men in Gold are not far behind on this evidence.

Argentina is in crisis with three comprehensive home defeats despite the fine performances of the Jaguares in Super Rugby which is counter intuitive and worrying for them with France and England in their RWC pool.

What to make finally of a mish mash ‘last Test’ at Newlands. If it is for the last time, it was a drab way to finish and a forgettable game even if a little bit of history was created for England. We forget that the weather can impact on big matches as we are normally served a diet of free-flowing rugby in bright conditions or covered stadiums. This was an important ‘result’ which allowed Jones and team to call for a resumption of the journey to Japan. Jonny May was the player of the tour, and Cipriani has to start in October – doesn’t he??!! Wouldn’t be so sure.

The statistics show that Jones has picked 100 players during his tenure, falling into the trap of previous England coaches who have surveyed the many resources available to them and done the same. England’s three most successful periods with their greatest players, 1980 (Beaumont), 1991-2 (Carling) and 2001-3 (Johnson) all enjoyed the same characteristics – consistency and loyalty in a shrewd selection process and strong, respected off field management which was spread across different skill sets. It’s not too late – just.

Quite apart from England, I can see six or more settled squads playing an exciting brand of rugby across the world. It bodes well for 2019. Even more exciting is the arrival of stunning wing play wherever you look. Apart from the two Springbok newcomers, Stockdale of Ireland, Marika Koroibete of Australia, Ioane of NZ,  Teddy Thomas of France and Jonny May have all starred in various ways. Ioane in particular is being used to great effect by NZ on running angles almost impossible to defend, as is Mackenzie and these two could be the key for their 2019 World Cup aspirations.

Footnote

Humble, having fun, youthful and ambitious, modest in press interviews, smiling at the world and dreaming of a World Cup – yes, it’s the English Football team who may not have beaten anyone of significance yet but we are all liking their style on and off the field. Bravo!

H.

 

Rugby Greens And Gold Paint A Picture Of Progress


Summer tours have sometimes appeared to be tiresome and meaningless. But not one year before a World Cup. We have in fact learnt a lot about aspiring hopes and that the All Blacks do not have the field to themselves. This final weekend’s rugby, before beaches become littered with bruised International bodies, will not change the fact that some countries are shooting up the rankings while one country goes in the other direction – England. Is that part of a cunning plan, Blackadder-style, to fool the world as well as the All Blacks?

The World Champions in fact have found out nothing this June, other than the fact that a tired French team is no match even for an opposition operating at 50%. I have bored people for long enough about how much rugby a Frenchman plays each season to render these results obvious. Steve Hansen was upset to lose the French fullback to a red card because it left the 2nd Test meaningless. It also allowed him to show sympathy rather than to contrast with the worryingly inexplicable decision in the First Test to ignore one of the most shocking head tackles I have seen for a while. Meantime his victim ended up in hospital with a double head fracture. What will it take?

Encouraging for the French is that their U 20 team have won the World Cup – devastating forward play and imaginative backs with ball in hand. Back to the future?

Wales have leapfrogged England into 3rd place in the world after a fine series win over Argentina with a weakened team. I really fancy them to have a strong World Cup as they not only have depth in key positions through careful player development but a real understanding of how they wish to play the game.

Ireland have had a stellar season and this weekend could top it off, but it matters not other than for Ireland to learn how to win the ’big one’ consistently. With no World Cup track record of note there is nothing to fall back on, but then no pressure either. Their forwards are looking awesome with the ball in hand, probably the best in the world right now. Their opponents, Australia, are also coming along nicely and tend to time their run into World Cups. I fancy that they will be very motivated this November, unlike last year.

Sleeping giants in rugby terms, the USA recorded a memorable win against Scotland, but with their lack of depth the Scots have to experiment and it makes not an ounce of difference to their progression as a top 6 rugby nation.

And so to the Springboks who have surprised everyone with their Blitzbokke (7’s) style of play. Such pace and imagination and real performance from the spine of their team (2, 8, 9, 10, 15) which I suggest has been the key to their stunning wins. In addition they have two packs of forwards who would compete against anyone in the world. How times have changed, and with a back three even quicker than England’s. No-one is celebrating their midfield play and this is still a work in progress. In a year’s time though, this group of players will strongly contest the RWC and you could not have said that a short while ago.

As for England I genuinely thought that their Saracen forwards would carry on where they left off the domestic season and drag England along with them, but no sign of it. In fact to the contrary, a series of performances that have left observers open mouthed at their fragility and poor technique up front. You cannot criticise their attacking back play at times, which has been a revelation, especially Jonny May who looks on top of his game and could play centre on this form!

Looking through the poor defence, ill discipline and lack of concentration, a full-strength squad can still be a threat to the other top nations and you write England off at your peril. However, there is a serious lack of confidence driven by poor form and curious selections, together with the weakest back row I can remember.

This weekend is key for the coaching staff as well as the players. Only a thumping win will do – and could happen as the Springboks have rested at least 5 players in key positions.  The boost they need though is further out – the All Blacks game in November is currently a dark cloud on the horizon but is also a short route to redemption for England to make the world take notice.

H.