This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with selection, tales from the east and the level European playing field…
The tangled Webb
There used to be three Welsh regions competing on a regular basis in Europe’s top competition. Now there are only two and they both lost – although it’s a tad hard to be down on the Scarlets for that.
But there’s no disguising that the Welsh regions are not what they used to be, which is the over-riding reason for the WRU’s change in selection policy announced on Monday. Only players with 60-plus caps who now choose to base themselves outside the country can be picked for international rugby, but the rule doesn’t apply to players already ‘overseas’.
That’s good news for Liam Williams (and very good news for Wales, given Williams’ form on Sunday) but it’s less good news for Rhys Webb, holder of only 28 caps and several post-op scars which have surely cost him a good score of caps, who has signed a declaration of intent to play for Toulon next season onwards.
Declarations of intent are not supposed to be legally binding, but renege on them at your cost, as Quade Cooper found out the hard way. In Toulon you’re up against Mourad Boujellal, not someone renowned for not getting his way.
An even more interesting case is Dan Biggar, who is four caps short of the 60 ahead of a move to Northampton next season. Normally he’d get them by the end of February, but he’s now only an ACL or a loss of form away from that becoming a predicament rather than a prediction. It can’t be nice to know that a misplaced stud on a loose sod of turf could cost you your international career if the letter of the law were to be applied.
That said, we have to confess that we’re all for the change here. The PRO14 has barely benefited from its foray into South Africa, even if the players involved will be all the richer for the experience of Bloemfontein in high summer. There’s no disguising the volume of the talk generated by the Premiership and Top 14’s millions and it’s hurting closer to home than New Zealand and Australia.
European rugby may be in rude health – more on that in a moment – but it will be healthy flesh on a thin skeleton if teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy cannot retain teams of top European class. The need for the cash generated by those fourth internationals in November means that club v country will continue to be a niggle regardless of any goodwill on offer when it comes to picking players not based domestically – another subject Mr. Boujellal has much to say about at times.
This policy leaves the players in no doubt as to how to best manage their priorities contractually. The ball is in their court, but the guidelines are clearer now. As Warren Gatland observed: “We have tried to simplify things because the old rule was not easy to understand. I am not comfortable with it in the sense that as a national coach why have a policy that means you are not able to pick some of your best players, but it is a balance.”
Naturally, the knives were out. Who goes and loses to a Russian club side in European competition, even with a shadow first team? Stade Francais tumbled to a 34-29 defeat in Krasnoyarsk on Saturday and the assorted rumbles of mirth and autopsy continue, but barely a word has been said about the victors, which is a shame.
The club is 48 years old and has an interesting roll call of former players after an agreement struck with Canterbury in 2010. Campbell Johnstone, Marty Banks and Toby Morland are all alumni of the club.
As far as squad goes, the profile might be typical club fare. Only two of twelve listed front rows are under 30 years old. There are five Tongans (enjoying Siberia much, chaps?) including prop Sione Fukofuka, who could be every commentator’s nightmare on a bad day. There’s a sprinkling of Georgians too, while Premiership watchers will recognise the names of Vasily Artemyev and Viktor Gresev, formerly of Northampton and Wasps fame.
But there is an impressive tally of international caps throughout the squad as well, which you’d think ought to have been flagged in advance by Capri-Sun magnate Hans-Peter Wild’s newly-acquired Paris team.
Anyway, the really interesting fixture might not even be this one, but rather the trip London Irish will have to make out there in January when speedos aren’t en vogue in Krasnoyarsk.
Two home wins does seem doable for the Russians – could they sneak more?
The value of the unknown
Once upon a time, a few things were guaranteed in Europe. Five of the quarter-finalists would be Munster, Toulouse, Leicester and Wasps, generally backed up by a couple of French teams and perhaps an over-achieving Welsh region. There’d be tension and drama and challenge galore, but the old guard usually found a way.
This weekend of fixtures past only showed that a final eight from the 20 runners starting this European edition might be harder to pick than a broken nose. There used to be a group of death in every European Cup, you could make a case for there being four of them this year – only the group involving Toulon and the Scarlets looks like having two teams significantly better than their counterparts.
We weren’t convinced when the Heineken Cup was re-jigged a few short seasons ago. But we are now. There’s nothing like a level playing field to pique the curiosity.
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens