European Rugby – Vacancies At No. 10


I am not referring to various maverick attempts to take on a political poison chalice, nor is it for me to pass comment on random pre-season behaviour by England’s incumbent stand off,
Danny Cipriani.

Is it midsummer madness or perhaps the endless summer heat, there have been some fascinating pointers towards next years World Cup and they surround the all important no 10 slot. Can it be that the fourth choice All Blacks fly half has come to Wasps as their marquee signing? It looks well justified and yet you cannot dispute that Barrett and McKenzie stand tall, above Richie Mo’unga in the rankings. There is a man who dominated the Super XV for the Crusaders but cannot get selected for the All Blacks. What riches!

South Africa is panicking as they have no back up to Pollard, and nor do Australia for Foley.  Ireland have exported Joey Carberry to Munster to gain experience if Sexton is injured and Wales know they have to make Patchell the real deal to challenge for the World Cup.  France seem not to need a No 10 specialist if they play like they did in the first half of the Third Test v NZ in the summer. This is a team to watch, believe me. At Racing 92 meanwhile, Finn Russell will build on the vision which unravelled England at Murrayfield last year and Scotland will be pleased.

What of England? Farrell should play 10 but the lack of any inside centre causes despair.  Could Jones chat to Baxter and appoint Slade as the season’s 12, then just perhaps for the first time since Will Greenwood we can see some creative decision making.

The season is yet to start, but I wonder if teams will stretch their ambitions – if not, then I suspect they will remain frustrated and it all starts with No 10.

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.

 

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.

Club Watch


Wasps/Leicester was an absolute stunner, both out of Europe but pushing the boundaries which is all you can ask.  Dan Robson again showed that he is the best scrum-half in England and if Le Roux plays against England in the Summer, watch out!

See Marcus Smith against Saracens in the second half – he attacked the line with pace, if only he had centres to run off him …..

Head Tackles – they continue to proliferate sometimes with the defence of ‘a shoulder which slipped upwards’. Let me be clear on my view – a hit or tackle which impacts the head with force is a red card, yes RED, every time until people stop doing it and the game draws a line across the shirt. It’s coming.

Club Watch


Wasps and Exeter played out a wonderfully competitive top of the table clash last Sunday, and if it had been another team Wasps could have scored 40. Exeter’s patient processes look less menacing now, while Wasps operate with pace and panache. Dan Robson is not required by England but remains an outstanding asset for his club as does the departing Guy Thompson NB.

Racing 92 look to have built a head of steam in the Top 14 as La Rochelle other title contenders were seen off comfortably at the U Arena on Sunday. Clermont have to win the Champions cup now to qualify for next year as they are so far back in the domestic league – the QuarterFinal against Racing is in many ways the tie of the round. Not one for the fainthearted!

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!!

2018 – A Rugby Year For The Brave


What kind of vintage was the Rugby Year of 2017 in the context of Japan, land of the Rugby World Cup 2019?
 
Apart from the British and Irish Lions performance against the odds, admittedly enhanced by Sonny Bill Williams foolhardy head tackle in the second test, this year was all about consolidation and preparing for the real tests ahead rather than any life-changing excitement. 
 
Without really breaking sweat, the All Blacks stayed ahead of the pack and have developed the depth they need, losing a couple of games along the way which all great teams have to suffer. 
 
England keep winning with the Grand Slam fading to a Championship, hardly a disaster. In leaving a nagging doubt that they just don’t play with enough sustained excellence, they have finishers, and how. If they can stay in a game they can win every time. Smart but risky. 
 
Ireland look very dangerous and they can beat anyone on their day – the best resource management in the world without doubt and all their best players are centred in a few provinces which makes a huge difference.
 
Let people not think Australia is an easy touch because England and especially Scotland sent them home to think again – they will peak for the World Cup and are a definite semifinalist with all their quality. 
 
France and South Africa are broken by their own internal issues and surely cannot recover in time – tragic, because they have such talent at their disposal. 
 
Scotland is the wild card which excites me – pace and power and a very very smart coach who is getting them to win games again (don’t mention the All Blacks). Organised chaos was their watchword in the 80’s, good enough for Grand Slams and World Cup semifinals. Here they come again. 
 
Sad to say, Wales and Argentina are riven by fatigue and injuries, undone by scheduling and a punishing game which demands deep resource or much better player management. But they are proud nations so expect a World Cup bounce whatever happens this year.
 
Fiji have so many outstanding individuals playing all round the world you must think they will spring a surprise if they can hold onto the players, or will that be the preserve of the hosts? Who can forget Japan v SA 2015!
 
All in all, most teams are marking time Internationally while domestic and European club rugby grows stronger and stronger – more on that another time.
 
My hopes for 2018 
  1. Coaches and players continue to push the boundaries of skill which are producing such high quality matches currently (reference Leinster, Exeter, Wasps, La Rochelle)
  2. World Rugby finally introduces new limits on high tackles and bans the clear out. The dangers are accelerating worryingly and defence coaches should also be held to account.
  3. Less well resourced nations like Fiji and Samoa are finally given the financial help they deserve and not just from World Rugby.
  4. If the right people are not put round a table to sort out the global season structure in 2018, we will have a real crisis and the main sufferers will be the players. Unacceptable. It is not made easier by the discussions likely over the domestic structure of the two club powerhouses of the Northern Hemisphere, England and France.
  5. A world class Six Nations for the first time in years, driven by a rampant Scottish team and somehow a French revival – or am I dreaming on that one?
  6. La Rochelle to break into the big time by challenging the best in Europe.
Lastly, somewhere soon somehow a scrum half will put the ball in straight – oh ok, only a joke.
 

DESTINATION RUGBY RULES


Rugby
It used to be that once the Six Nations was over, sell out rugby grounds were at a huge premium and confined to major finals. No longer, as has been proven since England were squeezed out of a Double Grand Slam by a highly disciplined Irish team. Consider the following…
 
First, Dublin played host to a tumultuous European Champions Cup Quarter-Final which saw Leinster triumph over the leading English Club, Wasps, and with an atmosphere which was way more intense. This coming weekend it’s Munster’s turn to try and make it three in a row for Irish teams and over 50,000 tickets are sold. This will not be for the fainthearted and this time it is the defending European Champions, Saracens, whom Stephen Jones called possibly the best team in the world right now at any level. Hard to disagree when they blew away three quarters of the Scottish team in Glasgow Warriors, scoring 40 points that could have been 60. I heard Ian Robertson call them relentless in squeezing the life out of teams. It is much more than that, their game out wide is without match on any rugby field in the world right now. But can they step into the face of Irish passion against a  Munster who are playing well above themselves in this special season? No Conor Murray but that didn’t bother Ireland.
Over in Lyon, Clermont and Leinster are the two most attractive teams to watch in the competition. More than 35,000 fans will be rammed into the Matmut stadium for their Champions Cup Semi-Final and on paper this ought to be one of the best matches ever in the Cup; two international teams going head to head and quality everywhere you look.
 
Let’s look back at the weekend of April 8th, which broke all records in the Premiership; 130,000 fans attending two games in London alone. At Twickenham, Bath found enough to win in a season which feels increasingly precarious. Banahan produced one of the passes of the year to put Watson in for the winning try and Faletau showed why he will be a Lions starter with startling pace and sleight of hand. It is what Billy Vunipola is still working on but here is a man who is now developing wonderful attitude. He was warned by a Premiership referee to calm down as he dragged Saracens out of a hole against Northampton Saints last weekend to achieve an unlikely win. That is the class which Eddie Jones is looking for.
 
The Pro 12 joined in the party with 60,000 at The Principality to watch the four Welsh regions battle it out in ‘Judgement Day’. Unfortunately not much form was forthcoming in any of the matches, and I am confused to hear how many Welsh names are Lions contenders right now. 
 
Finally, we in Europe announced Bilbao and Newcastle for our next two Finals days. This stretches the boundaries and takes rugby to places where the support is there but the experience is new and fresh. Not without risk of course, even allowing for Barcelona hosting last year’s Top 14 Final to 94,000. St James’ Park was an outstanding venue for the Rugby World Cup 2015 – some say the best – and with the Falcons at long last showing signs of a sustained revival the timing could be perfect.
 
The message is clear – the demand is there, you just have to be creative and bold and the crowds will come. These are heady days for rugby watchers, and it just shows you how many people would watch Six Nations in the flesh if they could get access – although eye-watering prices are hardly conducive.
 
As thoughts turn to the British and Irish Lions announcement on Wednesday, I wonder how many more people would be crammed into the stadia in New Zealand if only they had the facilities and the space. However , it doesn’t really matter what the capacity is because if you are talking destination rugby, then look no further than the current World Champions, and home of many of the best players on the planet. Please note Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the Lions in general: Beauden Barritt is simply the best player in the world today as he once again proved over the weekend. Stop him, and the task is well under way.