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.

 

Player Watch!


Teddy Thomas may be the headline grabber for Racing 92 and France but Wenceslas Lauret, his teammate, is a King of backrows in Europe alongside a clutch of Irishmen and in my book will be a World Cup star. 
 
James Haskell’s last game at Wasps should be recognised as he has been a real star.  He thinks that his high tackle penalty show the game has gone soft.  My answer is that players need protection, and sometimes from themselves.  I would change the colour of the cards when issued and then behaviour really will change.
 
Aled Brew is Bath’s player of the season. He played Saracens almost on his own the other week with his power and commitment in attack and defence. A team full of Brews would have seen them in the playoffs.

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.

‘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.