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.

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.

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!

Irish Triumph Would Be The Grandest of Slams


Ireland is on a five day party in England!  Cheltenham first then on to Twickenham to pitch for a Grand Slam – which would be an incredible achievement against a wounded England who are the two times defending Six Nations champions. That would hurt beyond hurt for the hosts and be an all time achievement in my mind for the men in green. Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to remind ourselves of a few glory-bound teams being undone on the final day of the 5/6 Nations…

Scotland came to Twickenham chasing a Triple Crown in the final match of 1987 against a winless England lacking 5 players who had been banned for fighting, including the Captain. Scotland were thumped 26-12.

England went to Murrayfield on a triumphal march in 1990 to claim the Grand Slam and instead it went to Scotland. No-one is forgetting that one.

England travelled to Cardiff and Dublin in recent years for the ultimate prize and were comprehensively undone on both occasions.

Ireland would do well to remember all this as they try to impose their relentless style of play built on possession and low error count. I have always loved Ringrose as an attacking talent, and together with the Sexton link play there is try scoring potential. But last year it was the pack which subdued the English challenge, which to be fair did not consist of much on the day. I suspect the same approach again lies in store and this year the Irish forwards are brimming with confidence and world class operators.

For England, they should look to play with some organised chaos, old Ireland style. The pack have to play with ferocity and aggression for the first time in the Championship – Kruis has a chance for redemption as does Haskell. Sinckler will be a handful, so will Itoje who owes England a big one. Farrell is a supreme passer in midfield and now will have first shout on the distribution and no-one will come down his channel confidently. He will feed the pace out wide better than Ford. Te’o and Joseph have plenty to prove in my opinion, but they may not be the influential players on the day.

Bottom line England must rip into Ireland and keep it up for 80 minutes, disruption being the order of the day. There is enough anger and hurt in this team surely to deliver the first real performance of a tournament they have barely turned up for. Eddie Jones keeps saying it is his coaching that has failed when England loses – I don’t buy that, it’s a cheap distraction and for another day to wonder whether he should be the attack coach as well as everything else. This is down to the players, and whether you wear white or green I simply cannot call it – but if I had to, then a big hearted England performance can surely be enough at home – just.

Talking of parties, whoever wins tomorrow the party will be long and hard as with all England Ireland contests, and I should know!

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.

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

Autumn International Days at M Twickenham


Sporting Wine Club are proud to present the M Twickenham Autumn Internationals Match Day offering, with SWC members receiving a 15% Discount!

Situated directly opposite Twickenham station, and less than a 10 minute walk from the ground, M Bar & Grill is the perfect venue for both your Pre and Post Match entertainment.

You can view the incredible “Match Day Experience”, hosted by Simon Shaw and guests, here.  This is a full day experience and includes a meet and greet, lunch with the legends, Q&A Build up and Post Match party.

If you would like to attend please complete this booking form.  As soon as you return the form to M Twickenham, your booking is confirmed. Please note however that the Shawsey Experience does not include match tickets.​

Post-match, tables are available for dinner from 7pm onwards, you can book a table via their website: www.mrestaurants.co.uk/twickenham/reservations/

Please advise M Twickenham if you would like any further information on any of the above offerings. Demand is obviously high, so we suggest that you book as far in advance as possible.

We look forward to seeing you there!

A Chill Autumn Wind Blows for the South


Now that the Domestic and European programme has finished its first phase, excitement is building for the Autumn Internationals, tempered however by the various unavailabilities through injuries or simple resting of key players.

My take on the season so far has been a welcome move to find creative influence in the middle of the field. Coaches are finally realising that the well timed pass or piece of vision can be the difference between winning and losing.  Toomua and Ford at Leicester have shown this in abundance, as have Lyon in France and Newcastle in England.  Glasgow and Scarlets also play with vision and, with Leinster, remain market leaders in the Pro 14 – although Euro success eludes the first two to date.  However, all is not lost because the doubleheaders in December are a winner takes all across the pools – Saracens/Clermont, Bath/Toulon and Leinster/Exeter home and away possibly whet the appetite more than the Autumn Internationals dare I say it! 

Talking of which, the All Blacks arrived in town to play the Babas at Twickenham at the weekend and it was wonderfully entertaining, lots of creativity and not a head injury in sight – if you don’t play head-on rugby, that tends to be the outcome.  More special was the Barbarians support of wounded service personnel through placing the Help for Heroes logo on their shirt and an invitation by their sponsors Paysafe to a number of soldiers to attend the match.  A wonderful reflection of rugby’s true values linking up with those who deserve all our support – topped off by an impromptu rendition of the Haka post match in the changing rooms for their visitors.  It would have been a memory to cherish.

It was nice of Twickenham to organise an All Blacks trial at the Home of Rugby, given that 10 of the Barbarians team were New Zealanders. They have forty of their best players here to allow Steve Hansen to run the rule over fringe players, and all the nations have adopted the same strategy. That is why if you exclude the All Blacks then Southern Hemisphere wins could be a rarity over the coming weeks given their last opportunities to experiment. Scotland and Wales will be fancying their chances, Ireland are nigh unbeatable at home as England found out, and the strong revival in Italian rugby under Conor O’Shea bodes well for their chances. This is all caveated by the tactics adopted as all Southern Hemisphere teams can swing the ball around dangerously, as the rugby Championship showed – Australia in particular look to have found a team for their World Cup after a couple of years of chastening results, especially against England and New Zealand.

Talking of England – their Argentina tour unearthed rare talent and a new way of playing. But it is not uniform across their squad. Certain key players lack pace – Hartley, Robshaw, Cole and Brown spring to mind. Jones has some tough calls to make for the core of his team and some positional.  Last years Six Nations saw good results but the performances were lacking. He won’t mind that as long as the team kicks on from here – all his main competitors are on sharp curves upwards. There are constant attempts to keep feet on ground – not fit enough, not enough leaders on the field etc. Remember, there was a “no excuses” culture adopted by Woodward in 2001 which became a real mantra and his 2003 winners were by now already the best in the world.

Still, let us not compare or recall history. The All Blacks never do, and they remain the benchmark.

H.

MATCH DAYS WITH SHAWSEY – An SWC & M Restaurant Event


SWC and M Restaurants have teamed up for an amazing Autumn Internationals package at M Restaurant’s latest venue – M TWICKENHAM

The ‘Match Days with Shawsey ’ package is just £295pp plus VAT & service charge and includes:

  • Guest host Simon Shaw MBE + special guests
  • 10:30am – champagne & drinks reception
  • 11:30am – 3 course lunch
  • Pre-match insight with Simon Shaw MBE and a panel of guests
  • Post-match party and welcome back drinks
  • The event will continue into the evening with The Ultimate Wagyu Pie!

Full details can be found here: http://mrestaurants.co.uk/twickenham/match-days/

For each booking which mentions Sporting Wine Club M Restaurant will donate £29.50pp to Sporting Charities.  Any SWC members who also become M DEN Members (offered at a special SWC 50% discount) will also enjoy an additional 15% discount off this package.

Please note that numbers are restricted to ensure that the post match experience is as epic as lunch.

We look forward to seeing you there!

SWC