Whatever about losing the World Cup final, English rugby had every right to be feeling good about itself and the future of the game after a successful tournament in Japan — until, of course, they found themselves with a PR nightmare on their hands with revelations about Saracens and their manipulation of the Premiership salary cap.
Salary stories have been doing the rounds about Saracens to such an extent that it was hard to feign surprise when the sanction was announced by authorities. Mark McCall will be relieved to get down to European business this weekend in Paris against Racing 92.
Whatever we can say about their suspect player incentives off the pitch, on it they remain an incredibly good rugby team. For the sake of fairness, it is worth pointing out that the majority of that Heineken Cup-winning squad is home grown, but McCall was on a sticky wicket pointing to the great Academy work the club has done insofar as it has absolutely nothing to do with their management of the Premiership salary cap.
It would appear that in the place of salary increases, Saracens players have been offered what in effect are business partnerships, with advice from the club’s millionaire owner Nigel Wray on property, etc.
It’s a bit rich, excuse the pun, for the club’s financier to be comparing the vagaries of property speculation with the certainty of salary — I’m pretty sure those property investments that players were advised on were not in some down-at-heel part of town!
To judge by the most reliable comments coming from people competing in the same Premiership, English rugby is fuming at this own goal. Chris Robshaw, who is quite measured, didn’t mince his words when he accused Saracens of cheating: ‘We look down on football for diving and athletics for cheating. Our grass is no longer greener. We’re as dirty as everyone else. The sport is in an extremely bad place and it’s going to be tough to recover from this’, he said.
How will clubs like Exeter Chiefs, who’ve been performing miracles on a tight budget and come close to toppling Saracens, feel about this? People who claim Saracens should be stripped of titles should not be dismissed as cranks.This is coming down the tracks in France, by the way. That’s the next elephant in the room, because there’s a salary cap in the Top 14 too and it is suspected some clubs are playing fast and loose with it. In the wake of the Saracens punishment, I’d imagine there are some club presidents checking over those salary numbers again.
European rookies v Big Boys
In the office this week I was looking at some La Rochelle players’ statistics as we approach our second season in the Heineken Cup.
Second row, Mathieu Tanguy, has played 90 games for the club but only three have been European Cup. It’s understandable, then, that there’s a bit of nervous energy around training this week. Top 14 leaders Lyon beat us 45-17 last Saturday, and though that leaves us ninth, we are only three points off third. We didn’t deserve to win the game but there was some promising bits and pieces to indicate we are getting there. Which is good to take into tomorrow’s opener against Exeter Chiefs in La Rochelle.
Playing at home is one thing. Where I am a mile off is changing the French mindset towards away games. You have to deal with reality. Improving that area of our game and our mindset is a big job but the priority is a winning start in Europe. We’ve played seven Heineken Cup games in total, Exeter have played 37 and they’ve asked all the serious questions of Saracens domestically. As I’ve been telling our players, this is the Big Boys Cup now.
Benefits of hindsight are wonderfully obvious
Eddie Jones is beating himself up that he didn’t change up the England team for the World Cup final. Even if he wasn’t so inclined, there are plenty of volunteers lining up to tell him so. It’s the old Henry Hindsight syndrome, with a world littered with experts after the event.
It seems Hindsight is on a nostalgic comeback tour, with all and sundry advancing a compelling case for why a Springbok victory in Japan was obvious from the get-go. What might be overlooked in the rush to be clever are the actual takeaways from the tournament.
First off, the draw itself – completed years in advance – has a material influence on preparation and progress. South Africa played Japan, Wales and England after their instructive opener against New Zealand. England faced Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and the Boks. Jones is right. Eventually, after four tough games they came unstuck, they didn’t get the last one right.
Lesson No 2 is from the fact the most predictable team won the World Cup. We make ourselves busy with improving stuff we are not great at, but South Africa were lineout, scrum, maul and repeat.
Their kicking game was decent at best by Pollard kicked points. It is good for young athletes to understand that when the pressure comes on, it is important to have the default play, the one they revert to in order to right the ship. In my case it was a spiral kick. South Africa had a template and seldom deviated from same. What had Ireland to revert to? We are not sure. This is as applicable to the individual as it is to the team, by the way.
Keep an eye on…
Remember this name: Baptiste Couilloud. The 22-year-old Lyon scrum-half delivered a blinding performance in their victory over La Rochelle on Saturday, and Leinster fans won’t have to wait long to see why I was so excited by his performance. Pierre Mignoni’s side have eight wins out of nine and are out in front of the Top 14. They have a very settled squad with really good combinations around the pitch. Couilloud was the best player on the pitch against us by a distance, the nine ripping us apart on a few different occasions. Mignoni is in his fifth season there now and the continuity is showing, there is a real good buzz going on there. What I am interested in is whether they can bring that confidence with them into Europe, starting at Northampton this weekend. They were largely unhindered by the World Cup with only Fiji’s Josua Tuisova involved, and he was back in club colours against us last weekend. Europe is a different kettle of fish. Next week in Round 2, they entertain Leinster in what is the tie of the round. It will give Mignoni and his players a better sense of where they stand - but it will also be an instructive evening’s work too for Leo Cullen.
Munster game changers
Where is the starting point for Munster this season? For everyone who correctly points to three successive Heineken Cup semi-finals, others — myself included — would argue they came up well short each time (admittedly with one disastrous first half against Racing).
Which is why I still argue Munster have been under-achieving the last few years. They kick off again tomorrow in Swansea against the Ospreys and whatever the XV, it will be a team of internationals.
They had a dozen players at the World Cup, test players returning now to the club game. No longer have the players the safety net of saying Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones were inexperienced coaches - they now have three veryexperienced senior coaches and they’d want to shakea leg.
They won’t get the shot in the arm of World Cup winners Damien De Allende and RG Snyman this autumn, but they are fantastic signings.
At 12, De Allende was unbelievable in the World Cup final against England, and Snyman is a monster.
They are signings that make a real difference, the type you can build a team of local lads around.
Munster haven’t always made the best signings from South Africa but this pair are gamechangers.
Nothing’s Black and white
It’s thousands of miles and a hemisphere away from the Heineken Cup but it’s always good to keep a close eye on developments in New Zealand. The decision on Steve Hansen’s replacement is looming and my old Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson got a glimpse of what life would be like as the All Blacks head coach when the Super Rugby squads for 2020 were announced this week. The media were around him like locusts, probing what Razor would do in terms of rugby philosophy as All Blacks coach. But largely unnoticed was the new surge of youth Razor will introduce to the Crusader line-up this season. After every World Cup cycle, there’s a flushing out of the tried and trusted as players retire and move on, making way for the next generation. Whether Razor will be there to oversee Crusaders’ bid for a fourth successive Super Rugby title is up for debate, but he would do so without a swathe of top level internationals like Ryan Crotty (gone to Japan), Israel Dagg (retired), Owen Franks (Northampton), Kieran Read (Japan), Jordan Taufua (Leicester), Matt Todd (Japan), Sam Whitelock (Japan). You think that might dull his appetite? Quite the opposite in fact. It reminds me of the time we went understrength into a game against the Hurricanes in my first season. He challenged my glass half full mentality. ‘This is a massive opportunity and a challenge for the boys coming in’.Haven’t forgotten that stare either.