This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with England’s European woes, the exit of an enigma and antipathetic scheduling…
Twelve out of fourteen. That is, remarkably, the number of games English club teams managed to lose over the double-header weekends of the European Cup. For a league laying a sturdy claim to be the best and most competitive in Europe, if not globally, it’s a poor return indeed.
Moreover, it seems not to tally with what we see on our screens. Tries in the Premiership are up, as are dynamic attacking phases of play. England’s national team has won 20 of its last 21 and many a fresh-faced teenager is emerging through the Premiership teams’ academies with talent shining.
Yet the decline is unwavering in the statistics. Two years ago, the record read won 7, drawn 1, lost 4. Last year: won 5, lost 7. This year: won 2, lost 12.
It’s hardly about calibre of opposition. Two years ago Saracens dished out a double-mauling to Oyonnax, but there were no comparable gimmes last year.
So what is it? Leicester captain Tom Youngs was unrestrained in his verdict on Monday, telling The Guardian: “…the mental strain is huge and it’s getting bigger and bigger. And to come straight back from an international and come back playing, it’s tough for those guys to ingrain in. You go from playing at a massive stadium, to coming back to playing in a park.
“The drive is not quite there, it’s different. It takes a while to adjust back, and to adjust back to family life. They come off a very intense camp with Eddie and they are a bit weary.”
Munster, Leicester’s opponents the past two weekends, rested most of their international players for the week between the November Tests and the double-headers. As did Exeter’s opponents Leinster and Quins’ opponents Ulster.
Clermont’s simple squad depth allowed them to be fresh against Saracens despite Top 14 commitments, as did Toulon’s. Northampton’s form is due to other reasons, while Wasps provided the exception to the rule with their win over La Rochelle – but the latter does not have the depth of a Clermont or Toulon and looked shorn of experience with four key missing players.
Yet it was hard to escape the overall impression, backed up by Youngs, that the English are just plain knackered.
Competitive the Premiership may be, but the overall English rugby scene is doing their clubs a disservice. Look at Leicester: several internationals in their ranks, who were needed for a slugfest against Wasps after the November Tests before their double-header against Munster, which now precedes a double-header against Saracens and Exeter over Christmas. No wonder Youngs is feeling the pace – and he’s clearly a spokesman for others feeling the same. Meanwhile, the others are simply managing the workload better.
My counterpart Andy Jackson waxes lyrical on a regular basis about the overstuffing of the rugby calendar, but the past fortnight has shown that the imbalance is at its most obvious in England now, not least in the wake of a Lions tour which further depleted energy levels before the season even began. English clubs are clearly suffering in Europe, which, given the Test-level nature of European games, could mean a long-term decline in international performance – win they may have, but England rarely looked fresh this November.
It’s hard to escape the sense of this being a pivotal moment in English rugby. Eddie Jones has the national team heading towards a showdown with the All Blacks for world domination, but the club sides are becoming overcooked, with the threat of a still further extended season looming, meaning further burnout and further injuries.
Something needs to give. Raise the salary cap to aid squad expansion? Cut a couple of teams from the Premiership? Restructure the Premiership into conferences of six to shorten the season? Withdraw from Europe? Or is the concern expressed here all just too much read into a bad couple of weeks? Answers on a postcard please…
Exit Frederic Michalak, after 18 years. Michalak belongs to one of a cherished bunch of players, including the likes of Shane Williams, who simply refused to let a comparative lack of size be a restraint on natural talent.
Bursting onto the scene as a teenager in Toulouse, his hometown club, he was pivotal – not just because of his ability to occupy both half-back positions with aplomb – in the red and black machine’s most glorious years at home and in Europe. During a time where rugby became more structured, more territorial and more about the big guys in the collisions, Michalak, a relative twig at 84kg, was a reminder that there was still a place for guile and passion – fly-halves all over the world still try his little reverse side-of-the-boot chip which left Ireland’s defence flummoxed at the 2007 World Cup.
There was still a place for fun too. He is a renowned practical joker, once building an impromptu brick wall across a team-mate’s driveway in the middle of the night. Once also, when faced with one of those throwaway post-match interviews in English (which he rarely spoke) and through the help of a translator, he replied to said translator (in French): “That’s a stupid bloody question, I’m not going to answer it. Make something up,” and then watched the consequences with a wry grin.
And sod convention. In an age when most of the southern hemisphere headed north to pick up their playing pensions, Michalak headed south to pick up experience in Durban. He was popular there, popular enough to be invited back after injury cut his second stint in Toulouse short, good enough to make his way into the squad for a Super Rugby final.
During France’s 2015 World Cup warm-up against England on 22 August, he surpassed Christophe Lamaison as France’s all-time leading point scorer, a fact probably very far from his mind when he left the pitch against England 12 years prior, having missed four from five in the World Cup semi-final against England. “I was useless,” he said after the game. “I didn’t do my job. The wind and the rain are no excuse.” Two months later he was a little more sanguine: “I admitted I played badly, but I haven’t been scarred by the experience. My life hasn’t changed and won’t change. It was just a bad day.”
We’re fortunate he recovered. Otherwise we’d have missed him from the subsequent twelve years. So for nostalgia’s sake, here’s the chip against Ireland, and here’s our favourite Michalak moment of all time – not just the dummy, searing pace and running line, but what about the pass to Florian Fritz…
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens