England Team 2…..English Clubs 1

At the time of writing every rugby writer (well at least those in the English papers)
is obsessed with the success to date of the English side in the Six Nations, with two
thumping wins out of two, and a contest in Cardiff on the horizon.

But a few short weeks ago the pool stages of the European Champions Cup were
concluded, and they have only darkened the cloud that hangs over English club
rugby.

As was the case last year, Saracens are the sole Premiership representatives in the
knockout phase of Europe’s elite competition, where they are joined by a hat-trick
of Irish provinces, and two each from France and Scotland. What underlies this
English club failure on the international battleground?
Some have suggested that there is a bruising competitiveness in the Premiership that leaves players fatigued once Europe rolls round. Supporting evidence can be found in the fact that France’s notoriously abrasive Top 14 has produced only a marginally better result with only Toulouse and Racing 92 qualifying for the quarter-finals.
However, this does a huge disservice to the Pro14. Apart from table-toppers Leinster and the stragglers of Dragons, Zebre, and Southern Kings, the league is compact and hotly-contested. Moreover, recent years have seen many Celtic stars return from stints abroad; Johnny Sexton, Dan Lydiate, and Ross Moriarty are but a few of numerous travellers who have made their way home of late. The class that such names add invariably increases the demands of the league.
The threat of relegation is another explanation that has been proposed for the deficiency of Premiership clubs in Europe. This certainly impacted Newcastle Falcons’ performance, as they slipped away after making a stirring start in Pool 5. Their focus was understandably placed on their perilous position at the foot of the league table. For the rest, though, the same cannot be said. Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, and Wasps all stand well-clear of the trapdoor, whilst Bath and Leicester Tigers have sufficient quality to keep their heads above water.
What reasons are left for this collective collapse? I believe the density of international players within some Pro14 squads sheds light on the issue. Cast your eye over the Six Nations squads and it becomes clear that Scotland and Ireland players predominantly come from a handful of sides. Comparatively, England’s are lightly-distributed across numerous clubs. Twenty-seven of those selected by Joe Schmidt are contracted to Munster or Leinster, with his counterpart Gregor Townsend assembling thirty Scotsmen currently plying their trade at Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors.
This clearly demonstrates that all four are teeming with talent. Nevertheless, so are most Premiership and Top 14 sides, given their greater financial capabilities. However, the Scots and Irish will be accustomed to playing with each under the increased demand of international rugby. With the demands of European competition above those of domestic action, familiarity at superior levels is significant.
A couple of anomalies may be spotted here. Firstly, Ulster progress whilst providing only six of Ireland’s players this time around. Yet, this ignores other factors at play, such as the ominous power of Ravenhill, as well as countless other intangibles. This point about the role of lesser factors also solves the second anomaly, which is that the Scarlets flopped despite possessing twelve of the Welsh squad members.
My argument regarding the effect of familiarity at the highest-levels is therefore a general one. Exceptions to the rule – like Scarlets and Ulster – are always likely.

Will Rugby Union trash its finest qualities in 2019?

If ever there was a year for rugby union to show the best side of itself, it is 2019. A first Rugby World Cup to be staged in Asia, fresh financial investment offering club rugby a chance to take a significant next step, a Six Nations championship requiring only a sprinkle of on-field brilliance to rank among the most compelling tournaments in recent memory.
So why the slight sense of unease? Partly it is because rugby has a long, undistinguished history of failing to grasp such major opportunities. It is only in 2015, for example, that English rugby was toasting the massive long-term benefits that hosting the biggest World Cup in history would inevitably bring. Barely three years later the talk is of damaging cuts to the community game, clubs struggling to put out as many adult teams as they used to and the Rugby Football Union’s latest winter of internal political discontent.
Mix in the potential complications of Brexit, increasing disquiet over the game’s ever-growing physicality and the ongoing wrangling over the new global international calendar and there is a rising cacophony of noises off. None of this, though, is as damaging as the bleakest scenario of the lot: the prospect of rugby losing any semblance of a reputation for respect, honour and integrity with participants, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Recent events have been far from encouraging in this fundamental area. Recently, one of the supposed showpiece games of the English season was marred by accusations of a player spitting at an opponent, while a director of rugby had an unseemly press-room altercation with a journalist and a leading player publicly lambasted a fellow pro for potentially endangering his career. Before Christmas the England captain and an international teammate were pinged for backchat by a referee sick and tired of constantly being advised how to do his job.
Eye-gouging, biting, simulation, bullying allegations, nightclub misconduct … any pretensions to the moral high ground to which rugby used to cling have long since been eroded. This matters for one fundamental reason: if rugby ceases to be regarded, even by those who love it, as a character-building, mood-enhancing and cherishable team sport for all, it becomes even harder to justify the lengthy queues of battered players in A & E.
This is not to say rugby has surrendered its soul, merely that all involved need to be aware of the slippery slope they are on. Hard but fair should be rugby’s watchword, not “I think you’ll find the video evidence is inconclusive”. When players appeal to the referee, as they so often do, for penalties at breakdowns when the supposed offender is being deliberately pinned down by their own teammates, they should understand they do their sport a small but significant disservice. Ditto the mock outrage when a scrum goes down or, worse, arm-waving appeals are made to the assistant referee. Playing to the absolute limits of the laws is absolutely fine; deliberately going to ground after contact with the clear aim of getting an opponent carded is not.
Some will argue such cynicism does not matter in the great scheme of things, that what happens out on the pitch is heat-of-the-moment stuff and no one else’s business. This ignores the snowball effect on behaviour at lower levels as well as the rising levels of frustration it generates, from directors of rugby downwards. Whether at games or on social media, there is no question that rugby fans as a species are growing more one-eyed, less tolerant and generally more easily enraged. This would also appear true of society as a whole but rugby, a game fundamentally predicated on respect for its officials and participants, is cheapened more than most by finger-pointing and unnecessary posturing.
Sometimes rugby forgets to celebrate its greatest strength, namely its power to unite the unlikeliest of people on and off the field. Dilute that special quality, lose the humour that remains the game’s safety net and fail to nourish the sport’s image and 2019 will be remembered as the year that rugby union, at a critical moment in its history, threw it all away.