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HEAVYWEIGHTS OF EUROPE SLUG IT OUT

If this was prize fighting we definitely saw the heavyweight division this weekend in the European Champions Cup.    All four semi finalists had lifted the trophy more than once so these were four tea...

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SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST AND GLOS POWER UP FOR BIG FINISH

At times like this in the season some Directors of Rugby at Premiership clubs must wonder why on earth they ever took the job. The noise and discussion is all around the ‘R’ word and for the teams hovering in that horrible dark zone at the bottom of the table it must dominate everything else. Survival is now the name of the game. Where’s Ray Mears when you need him…

 

With rugby club royalty Leicester Tigers hovering just above the relegation zone there is a sense of panic in the Premier League. The last ‘big’ clubs to go down were Saints and Harlequins who survived and made it back without too much damage. The landscape has shifted however with more TV money swishing around the Prem it means squads are more expensive and you need now need those top-quality players to compete. Tumble into the Championship with a £7m wage bill and it is going to be a titanic struggle to stay afloat.  For the Premiership to be missing such big hitters as the Tigers with their 24k crowds and massive support base will also have an impact on TV viewing figures and sponsorship. Despite all that, short of a last minute panic deal to ring fence or increase the league to 13, it could happen.

 

Tigers face fellow struggler Newcastle Falcons on Friday night in a game that has instant ramifications for both. If Falcons lose, they will feel cut adrift with only three games to go and should Tigers lose with no bonus point they will be staring relegation full in the face.

 

Newcastle Falcons so very nearly came away from Allianz Park in North London with a deserved losing bonus point that just might have been crucial for survival in the league.  It was a strong Falcons side missing just a couple of key men and they took the fight to Saracens. Live wire scrum half Takulua was everywhere and the forwards fronted up well in the set piece. The issue was their inability to break down the Sarries defence which was brick wall like.

 

Not the most scintillating first half which felt like a defence drill for the Sarries boys and not much else. The champions were quite frankly poor with countless errors and I guess the gulf between the sides is shown by the fact they still went on to win with a bonus point. Perhaps the Sarries mid-season break - they spent three days in St Anton in party mode - just might not have led to the best training and preparation they have ever had! Throw in the absence of the likes of Mako, Billy, Jamie George, Liam Williams, Will Skelton and Alex Goode and I guess coach Mark McCall is probably relieved they escaped with the points.

 

My belief is even if Tigers can’t claw out a win on Friday, they still can win again this season. There is the obvious rider though that for the players the fear and tension that takes over your body in these relegation games can lead to muddled thinking and errors you would not normally make. It’s pure pressure and we have all seen top class kickers miss easy punts at goal when the heat is on or normally safe hands drop passes in cup finals. How Tigers deal with these next four games will come down to their mentality. With Mike Ford hauled into camp to add some of his big game match experience and coaching nous they are aware they needed something different. Mike did not manage to shore up the defence in the game against Exeter, but the attack and physicality was much improved. Tigers were not good enough for the high flying league leaders but play the same way in their next four games and the spectre of relegation will vanish.

 

For Worcester Warriors despite a good fight against Wasps they are still a candidate for the drop. Their run in looks tricksy playing teams in the Top 6 with a final game against a Saracens side that always seem to peak around this time of the year. The clink of light is they also have three home games and have shown themselves more than capable of taking on the top sides on their artificial turf. Coach Alan Solomans has them playing in a good style and you cannot doubt some of the quality he has in the squad.  Sale are travelling down the M6 and if they suffer from their normal travel sickness this could be an opportunity for Worcester to grab some vital points

 

Bristol still have some work to do before the champagne comes out with Saracens at home this weekend followed by Leicester away. The Tigers away game takes on the look of a massive game should both teams lose this weekend.

 

Elsewhere in the league I was thrilled to see Gloucester travel away to the in-form Northampton Saints and put in a big, big performance. As an ex forward, to me their pack is a thing of beauty with enough grunt, power and size to take on anybody. The backs have been good for a while but with the addition of Cipriani and strengthening of the forward pack the side looks beautifully balanced.

 

That valuable away win puts Glos in a fantastic position to nail a play off place which would be superb for the players and fans. It is always good to see the teams change in the top 4 and to have both Quins and Glos back up there brings excitement and some unpredictability. For me Gloucester has the best chance of upsetting the odds with a team that is now a match for Sarries and Exeter. Should Sarries reach the European finals they may be playing Gloucester in the Prem semi-final the following weekend and this could be the Cherry & Whites chance to put in a massive performance and power themselves into that final at Twickenham.  

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STOCKDALE SLIP UP, BLONDE BOMBSHELL AND SHOULDER SHOVE

Quarter final weekend for the Champions Cup is a big highlight in the calendar with four tasty games featuring the top sides in Europe to look forward to.

 

If there was a slight air of disappointment at the actual match ups that gave us teams meeting very familiar foes from their own leagues or pools - that went out of the window from the very first game.

 

Edinburgh have been sailing along on a wave of Richard Cockerill inspired self-belief. The ex-Leicester man has inserted some good old Tigers values into Edinburgh with the school of very tough love being the main one. Players have had to buckle down and work their socks off and the disciplined approach plus some genuine coaching nous has seen Edinburgh into a European quarter final. And they so nearly made that a semi-final too. I thought Edinburgh played such good rugby but ultimately it was the ‘cup’ team Munster who prevailed through their sheer will to win and ‘been there and done it’ attitude. Edinburgh got unlucky with a couple of decisions and when their prop put a casual shoulder into Tadgh Biernie it swung the game The Munster man went out of his way to ensure the referee knew it with a what can only be kindly interpreted as an over obvious reaction and Edinburgh learnt a harsh lesson about Europe. In big stakes games players will go right to the edge. Do we want to see players throwing themselves to the floor in rugby? Of course not. However, the lesson learnt in European rugby is that its high stakes so do not allow yourself to give the oppo a sniff to do anything like that at all. Shoeman, the Edinburgh prop, did not need to do what he did and in future knock out games I can’t see it happening again.

 

As for Munster – what is there left to say about this wonderful team. Their passion for this cup competition is so clear to see and as is often the case in rugby when you bring that to the table you can get over the line. They have to face up to Saracens now in the semi final but at the Ricoh Stadium where their fans will no doubt dominate, they will not go down without a fight. The Munster defence has been sensational during this cup run and Saracens will need to play a different game to break them down. Easy scores will not be given, and every Munster player will put his body on the line.

 

Over at Allianz Park there was a short flurry of excitement as Glasgow ran in a breathtaking try in the opening minutes and we thought we had a game on our hands. Saracens however reset and went again and proceeded to totally dominate Glasgow. The Scottish side could not live with the power of the Sarries pack aligned to slick handling and the skills of a Liam Williams, Alex Goode and indeed Jamie George. The England hooker put in a masterclass - whizzing passes out - particularly a scrum half pass to put David Strettle over for a try.

 

Sturart Hogg may have been regretting the choice of hair colour as his peroxide mop only served to highlight him even more when he made uncharacteristic error after error. It was a shame because he was still such a threat and showed he could unlock the Sarries defence. After the game it seemed Glasgow were dismissed as being poor but in truth this team had run Sarries very close up in Scotstoun and were in with a shout in the return pool fixture until Sarries got a couple of late tries. I had expected a bit more from them but Saracens even without new Dad Owen Farrell who was in the maternity ward were in the mood to play and when they are fully on it in European games most teams struggle to live with them. That Munster clash is starting to look very tasty indeed.

 

When the Leinster v Ulster quarter was announced most would have groaned. Predictable, a Pro14 regular fixture, a comfortable win for Leinster – all quite rightly would have thought. It turned into a stormer. It was a Test match like game with Ulster putting in one of their best performances for a while. Luck plays a role in rugby – of course it does – and also, we know there are some tiny little margins often between winning and losing. Jacob Stockdale the sensational Ulster winger worked his magic to put himself in a position to score a vital try and just failed to ground it. That was a momentum swinger and game changer. Leinster whilst not at their best and missing their talisman Sexton still had enough to see out the game and will have some key men back for the semi-final. The Dublin side has not looked as comfortable this year and looking at this quarter you can argue they were beforehand comfortable favourites. No one however will remember that if they go on to lift the trophy again in Newcastle.

 

The most entertaining game of the weekend was the all French affair which if you did not see it I recommend you try and find online and give it a watch. Drama all over the place with a red card for Toulouse in the first 20 minutes which contributed to a ‘throw caution to the wind’ approach and some quite scintillating rugby. The red card has ceased to be the game killer it used to be and whilst there is no doubt it is horrendously difficult to win with a man down there have been enough times it has been done to show it can also galvanise a team who feel hard done by.

 

Toulouse in Racing 92’s raucous and disco style stadium played stupendous rugby and Racing who physiologically thought they had ‘got this’ found themselves struggling to contain them. Why of why can’t the French national team play like this? Toulouse for their reward now get an away semi against Leinster which seems a little harsh! The new rules however state home country semi finals go to the higher seeds and Leinster therefore are once again back in the comforts of the Aviva stadium.

 

Is it just me or has Challenge Cup rugby got much more exciting? The quality of some of the teams on show has led to such cracking games and as nice as it was to see the quarters, I could have wished for a few more of the pool games to get a bit of airtime. Sides such as Clermont, La Rochelle, Connacht, Northampton and Quins surely merit that. The semis see Harlequins having to travel out to Clermont and Sale Sharks also take a trip out to France to face La Rochelle. Tough assignments for both those teams and you would not be surprised to see an all French final. Sale have a small squad and an eye on the Premiership league position plus Quins also want desperately to stay in a playoff place and get a tilt at the Premiership title.

 

So passports away now folks for the next two weeks as the Premiership starts its home run and with so much still on the line for most of the teams expect fireworks and more drama to come.

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RELEGATION DOGFIGHT AND THE LONDON FIGHT CLUB

The Six Nations is all over and the relentlessness of the Gallagher Premiership was shown clearly this last weekend as tired returning internationals were shoved straight back into the starting fiftee...

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GATTS GRAND SLAM HEROES AND FORTRESS TWICKENHAM INVADED

Warren Gatland and his magnificent men in red had a weekend of epic proportions. Grand Slams are rare old beasts for a reason given how dam tough they are but all along Gatland predicted that if Wales beat France away in the opening game they would go on and bag yet another title. Gatts has now got to be up there as one of the most revered and respected coaches in the world. Having worked with him at Wasps I know what the man offers, and it is a lot. He is a smart tactician and brilliant man manager and Wales have truly benefitted from having him at the helm. It has been quite a ride he has taken Wales on and with the World Cup on the horizon it is Gatland, rather than Eddie Jones, who has steadily built, plotted and planned and got his side in the perfect place to make an assault on the Rugby World Cup.

 

As Saturday unfolded at Twickenham the English nation went into deep shock. We couldn’t possibly lose this. Could we? We certainly could. The Scots came thundering back in a second half that was right up there as one of the best sporting comebacks in history.

 

There have been reams of anguished prose churned out and in-depth analysis on radio and podcasts picking apart what went wrong but it was probably just a tiny shift in momentum at the end of the first half that ended up causing the ensuing carnage. That charge down try jump started the Scotland team and then allowed the momentum to propel them into a magnificent come back, Disaster for England as their game totally crumbled and Scotland grew and grew in self-belief to oh so nearly snatch an incredible, historic win.

 

Are England mentally weak is the question so many are asking. That is a strong statement and harsh on a group of players who have shown passion, desire and strength of character. Leadership is still lacking with just not quite enough gnarly older heads who have seen it all before. Farrell is improving as a captain, but it is a heavy burden to be fly half and captain and there is a reason why it is rare to combine the two. Perhaps Maro Itoje or Jamie George should have been looked at and groomed for the role as both have captained at club level and Maro at England U20’s.

 

 It was a little too easy for England in the first half when they played with almost outrageous confidence off loading the ball and slicing open Scotland at will. But the game was also played at searing pace. This meant when England went onto the back foot, they could not find the emotional and physical energy they needed to fight the resurgent Scots. When you throw away a big lead it mentally and physically drains you. For Scotland however that feeling of closing the gap on your opposition must have been revitalising and energy giving.

 

England were superb in that first 30 minutes and over the whole Six Nations had just two poor halves.  I would not be writing the obituaries yet for this England side who have also demonstrated they can score tries and plenty of them. Long criticised for an inability to get over the whitewash it now looks like what is needed is some rebalancing between attack and defence and then just maybe England will go into the World Cup in good shape.

 

 

Mixed feelings I am sure for Ireland with self doubt now swirling around the team. In some ways they may have peaked too early but they also will surely reset, refocus and under the inimitable Joe Schmidt turn back into that ruthless green machine that dominated last year. What was looking originally like an easy pool in the World Cup and a guaranteed quarter final slot will now look a shade harder with Scotland quite rightly believing they have every chance of elbowing Ireland out of that top spot.

 

I really felt for Italy this Championship as they were so close to gaining some victories yet ended with the wooden spoon yet again. It was cruel timing for coach Connor O Shea as the last couple of months have seen players skittled by injuries leaving an already small squad patchy and threadbare in places. Promising signes there were aplenty with the Italian attack looking sharper and more skilful and some new young talent beginning to shine.

 

As for our enigmatic friends the French we are no better informed about where they are in this crucial year. Shambolic on and off the pitch they may be but oh boy do they have talent. As admirable a thing it is to keep appointing French coaches surely by now the FFR see the need to bring in some fresh thinking and experience from other parts of the world.

 

The Six Nations 2019 table only tells half the story and if at times the rugby was not of the highest standard the drama never flagged. It is now back this weekend to Premiership rugby which will have virtually every side jostling for league position. Returning internationals will no doubt be straight back into club colours to help gain crucial points with many then running out in European quarter finals the week after. The Six Nations may be over but the drama is not.

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Marauding Manu, Scrappy Scots and the luck of the Irish

First things first, let us start this week’s blog off with a visual aid…

The various permutations of this 6N are truly incredible! Okay then, so now that’s all cleared up let us get down to the bus...

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TWO OUT OF THREE AIN'T BAD PLUS WASPS STUNG BY TMO

What a scrap this weekend was in the Gallagher Premiership with three of the league’s bottom sides landing a killer blow against teams above them. That keeps the league looking as tight as ever with a tiny 2 points separating fifth to ninth and Newcastle Falcons now breathing heavily onto the back of the neck of the Worcester Warriors.

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WALES SLAM DOOR IN ENGLAND’S FACE AND NO ROMAN HOLIDAY FOR IRELAND

If we did not know it already it was confirmed this last weekend that the Six Nations tournament is truly epic. The toughness of away fixtures, the passion, the rivalry and the upsets! Wouldn’t sport be boring if the results always went the way you thought they would? What we have now instead of England being in box seat for a Grand Slam it has switched to Wales. Wales, however have a couple of nasty fixtures lined up that could flip that on its head with a trip up to Murrayfield and a final home fixture against an Ireland side still in the hunt for the Championship title.

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EXETER ENGINE STALLS IN GLOUCESTER AND SAINTS HIT SALE

There was no Six Nations for us to ponder the past weekend but there were plenty of talking points from what turned out, for some, to be a rusty resumption of the Gallagher Premiership.  It looked like the start of the season in many cases with teams who had had recent game time looking better prepared and sharper than those who had no meaningful games and had most of their boys sunning themselves in Dubai.

 

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MAY DAY, MAY DAY – FRANCE NEED HELP

Twickenham is a grand day out and on Sunday it was a sea of France  and England fans in high good humour and awash with expectations.  The Bollinger and Guinness tents were heaving and the sun was threatening to come out.  All set up then for another historic ‘Le Crunch’ game?  Sadly not - as Les Bleus sad to say were pretty shambolic.  Whilst showing flashes of sublime skills they were thoroughly outplayed, and outthought, by a totally dominant England side. The coaching seemed non existent and there were not enough leaders out on the pitch to extract any kind of control on the game.

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Sweet Chariot Powers Up and Wales with a First Half to Forget

There was an ad from a car maker that went out in Dublin before the game at the Aviva. It depicted a broken-down chariot with the wheels off and was a mighty fine joke and fun advert. However as someone pointed out it may have been better to have waited until after the game.  The England chariot was far from broken with the men in white driving full working bull dozers on Saturday afternoon at the Aviva.

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CLASH OF THE SIX NATIONS –RUGBY RIVALRY AT ITS BEST

If you are a rugby fan this is the time of the year that sparks more excitement, more debate, more heat and more passion than any other. Yep – it’s Six Nations time and boy I don’t think anyone can wait.

This competition which is looked on with envy by the rest of the rugby playing world, is by common agreement the best rugby tournament in the world. Why? It’s a mix of the history, the fierce rivalries and tribalism, the awesome away support and the way the fixtures change every year throwing up completely different challenges.

Whilst Ireland, quite rightly, are favourites there are potentially 4 other teams that could realistically nick it. Momentum and the order you play your home and away fixtures all help make the Six Nations ludicrously competitive. There is a reason back to back Grand Slams are rare and that is because they are bloody difficult to win. The last time it was done was by France way back in 1998 and the standard has not exactly fallen in that time. 

If you were going to back one nation to achieve the Slam, then of course it’s our Celtic cousins - the high flying Irish. They have a perfect blend of playing and coaching talent and now have the added ingredient of huge self-belief and confidence. The tiny question hanging over them is to do with their traditional slow starts where they are slightly vulnerable. This year however something feels different and I suspect having England park their tanks on the Aviva lawn may concentrate their minds beautifully with no motivation required. I hope Eddie’s game plan doesn’t just read ‘smash ‘em’ for this fixture as If England think they can just bull doze Ireland then they are wrong. Ireland’s defensive system is very clever, and their game plan means they keep possession and force you into errors. England may occasionally have success on the gainline but that won’t be enough to win. What is a worrying stat for England is their inability to score tries against Ireland and Andy Farrell of all people understands how you stop England.

For England overall, I have huge hopes for them to turn around their disastrous 2018 campaign and become one of the main challengers. It was revealing to read in a Paul Gustard interview an admission from the ex England coach that the coaching team had got it wrong last year and over trained the players going into the tournament. Lots of people thought the team looked sluggish and lacking in bite and intensity which given Eddie Jones’s notorious training sessions was not a total surprise. England fans will be hoping the squad are topping up their tans in Portugal this week rather than their bench press stats and will start the tournament with the energy and physicality that was lacking in the previous campaign.

A lot will be pinned on England’s returning star players but reasons to be cautious are their lack of game time. Billy Vunipola is undoubtedly a crucial man for England at his best. He has played however just three games and in his own words has said he is not quite back to his best. The series of broken arms are understandably playing on the big number 8’s mind and you can see if you watched those come- back games how he is not playing with the same bull dozing intensity. The hope is that he is building up to it and he is definitely showing signs of his confidence returning.

Manu Tuilagi is another where huge expectations have to be tempered with the knowledge the poor lad has been away from International test rugby for a staggering 7 years. He has been showing tantalising glimpses of Manu circa 2012 at Leicester but will he be able to deliver in the white-hot atmosphere in Dublin? With Ben Te’o out it is looking like he is going to get his chance and what a stage for him to announce his return. So, there are reasons to be cheerful or at least hopeful for England fans especially with the outstanding form of Maro Itoje and the reuniting of the Vunipola brothers. England of course can win in Dublin and I am sure Ireland do not believe they just have to turn up to win. It should be close but Ireland’s game management, structure and lack of errors gives them the right to feel confident of the victory.

Wales coach Warren Gatland has ditched the faux modesty and humbleness and stated if Wales beat France in Paris on Friday night they will win the competition. Bold claim but I would be inclined to go along with that given Wales have their two other strongest rivals visiting them in the bear pit of the Millennium stadium. Ireland and England’s record at the Cardiff stadium is patchy and this is a very fine Wales squad on a very good run of their own. Forget European form here as the Welsh regions’ performance rarely impacts on the national side. To balance out that optimism for Wales there are a few injuries to key men that just might derail the red dragon. Halfpenny is their kicking go to man with his dead eye and nerves helping Wales many a time to get over the line and Faletau at number 8 is a big old loss. But like a lot of the other tournament sides their depth has increased and canny old Warren Gatland has built a team that is a true contender. 

Scotland would have looked at the 2019 fixtures and thought – we like that! The vagaries of the schedule have given Scotland a gentle start with the visit of Italy to Murrayfield. The best bit is they are at home again the second week and welcome Ireland. Ireland at Murrayfield is never a given with some rare old battles played out in the capital and Ireland know there is the potential to come out on the wrong side. I like this Scotland side and despite a few blows on the injury front they will be strong and passionate and fired up when it all kicks off in Edinburgh. If their quicksilver fly half Finn Russell can add some control to his wonderful game then they are capable of pulling teams apart. They will have a big say in where the trophy heads with a chance to derail hopes in both Dublin and Wales.

Whilst Italy are finally showing under Connor O Shea signs of getting their act together it is sadly at a time when all the other nations have raised their game. It has been marvellous to see Treviso ramp up the gears and become a threat in the Pro 14. Their game last weekend against Ulster away in Ireland, with most of their star names off with Italy, showed just how much the Italians are improving. It’s a slow process but is the right one. Conner has addressed the fundamentals in Italy getting the structures and pathways right which has already resulted in a very good and competitive U20’s side.  I believe Italy appointed the right man to overhaul the game and put it on the right path towards being more competitive at Tier 1 level. It will take time and this Six Nations is a little soon. A couple of key men in a paper-thin squad will not help the Italian cause but expect them to really compete at home. Their attack looks miles better albeit if I was the Italian Federation I would be getting the cheque book out for a top class defence coach,

As for Les Bleus - what can we say? We are all a little bored of repeating each year ‘which French team will turn up’ but infuriatingly we have to ask the same question every year. It has never been more true for 2019 with a squad selected that looks like it was picked using a lucky dip. There is, as usual, so much talent still in there and I like the way France have thrown in some of their U20 World Cup winners. There issue is lack of consistent selection and no experienced spine of the team. With the half backs on a constant merry go round and players hardly given one season to bed down in the team it is little wonder no one is backing them to go on and win the tournament. Of course they can, and I am sure they will, have a say and no more so than on the opening fixture in Paris against Wales.

My guess is there will be no Grand Slam this year and we could even have Ireland, Wales and England all losing one game bringing it down to points difference as we did in that manic last Saturday a few years ago when teams threw away their playbook and just went for tries. That, my friends, is the magic of the Six Nations. You just never know what you are going to get.