Planet Rugby

Loose Pass

14th October 2013 10:09


Toulon v Glasgow Maxime Mermoz celeb

Toulon: Made a brilliant start in the Heineken Cup

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the European action, perspectives on development, venues and Sonny Bill...

As if there was any need to remind us what we are set to miss next year as the English clubs look to protect their own interests, the Heineken Cup dished up one of the finest weekends of action we have seen in yonks.

From Toulon's brilliance to the Exeter-Cardiff thriller, the Scarlets' superlative display in London, Gloucester's rugged victory over Perpignan, Ulster's dogged win over Leicester and Connacht giving Saracens a mighty scare, all styles of rugby and all sorts of dramas unfolded over twelve pitches spanning Europe.

It showed with stark clarity who has what to lose from this miserable fracas in the corridors of power. Cardiff are already under pressure; the problems they have potentially re-signing key players like Sam Warburton because of the uncertainty over next year's revenue will only pile that pressure higher. Munster might be in the same boat after a terribly disappointing defeat to a resurgent Edinburgh.

But what about Edinburgh - and Connacht for that matter? Edinburgh are looking like they might spearhead a Scottish revival of sorts while Connacht are no longer Ireland's 'fourth province'. But without the Heineken Cup, both might sink out of sight, as might the Scarlets, whose victory over Harlequins was testament to the good work done in bringing young stars like Jordan Williams into the big games quickly.

English teams also have plenty to lose if the Rugby Champions Cup does not work out as they wish. There were definite signs that the Premiership creates very little in terms of skill or improvisation before this weekend; their record of won three, lost three from this opening weekend did little to dissuade that impression. The Heineken Cup would appear to give English teams the challenge on the field they really need; removing it may actually set English rugby back a few years on the field, even if it moves forward a few pennies off it.

The French have no such worries. Their own weekend record of won five, lost two - one of those defeats coming in an all-French clash - shows that their clubs are generally the strongest. Often regarded as Eurosceptic when it comes to putting out strong teams for the HEC, the French teams are now reveling in the cross-border competition. Where once key players were rested in Europe, now they are rested domestically.

Financially the Top 14 earns them the necessary pennies, so the Heineken Cup is really an extra test a level up. Eventually, the clubs are going to realize that they gain more from playing a pan-European competition. If the Pro12 teams/unions are patient enough, they might be able to welcome the French back.

That's theory - something to be hoped for. The practice is as follows: what a fabulous weekend of rugby. Why on earth would you break it?

Brilliant column from one Hamish Stuart this week, reminding English clubs of what they might best served be looking at when it comes to on-pitch improvements. The following is directly quoted and is a Sunday roast with all trimmings and dessert for thought:

"When someone is apparently doing something better, as the English clubs claim the Rabo teams are by being able to better rest and develop players, do you drag the better system down or look to improve yourselves? That is something for the RFU to ponder as well.

"Here's some evidence: Take the 2008 Junior World Championship, the first of its kind and those players are now around 25 and therefore we have relatively conclusive evidence of the success or otherwise of their development.

"England lost in the final to New Zealand, Wales came fourth. England beat South Africa in the semis, Wales were hammered by South Africa in the third/fourth place play-off. You would expect that England team to go on to greater things than their Wales equivalents.

"From those two squads: Original Lions selections: Wales 4, England 1. Alex Corbisiero was added after injuries to make it 4-2 in the end.

"Players in decisive Lions Third Test: Wales 3, England 1.

"Internationals produced from 2008 JWC squads: Wales 9, England 4.

"Caps from those players: Wales 175, England 63.

"Regular regional or club players produced from those squads: Wales 12, England 8.

"Remember England were the better team.

"So was that a one-off exception - well here are the results from 2009 when Wales came seventh and England again reached the final. In other words, England were a much, much better team.

"Original Lions selections: Wales 1, England 1.

"Players in decisive Lions Third Test: Wales 1, England 0.

"Internationals produced from 2009 JWC squads: Wales 7, England 3.

"Regular regional or club players produced from those squads: Wales 8, England 9.

"Or how about 2010, England reached the semi-finals while Wales were once again 7th.

"Internationals produced from 2009 JWC squads: Wales 5, England 3.

"Regular regional or club players produced from those squads: Wales 11, England 9.

"Given the fact England had much better teams and more good players at the U20 stage, there must be something wrong with the way they are developing players compared to the other countries. The much-maligned RaboDirect must be doing a better job that the Aviva Premiership. "

"The smaller countries cannot afford to squander so much talent as England do. English clubs have no right to force them to adopt less successful practices. All this is hardly the way for anyone to challenge the southern hemisphere, while the Celtic countries could see all their hard work at international level blown away. There will be fewer opportunities to develop young players and there will be more attrition for the senior players meaning shorter careers and more injuries. The English and French answer is to buy in more foreigners, that cannot be the solution for the Celts and Italians.

"Wales and the Celts cannot afford to join the English clubs' breakaway if Wales want to continue winning Grand Slams and championships and they all want to challenge at international level. Some things are more important than money and power - or should be."

Still, the chicanery continues. If it happens, the Heineken Cup Final in 2015 will be played in Milan's San Siro stadium, one's of Europe's grandest iconic venues.

It is logical to assume that it was simply about blinking time Italy at least got some hosting rights, even if their teams are not likely to be in the final any time soon.

It is, however, also tempting to say that this was a well-dangled carrot to keep the Italians sweet, as well as a challenge to Premier Rugby et al to come up with a better venue for the Rugby Champions' Cup Final.

Given the choice, would you rather go to Milan or Twickenham? Answers on a postcard please...

Once again, Sonny Bill is in the headlines for daring to tempt a couple of sports before making his pick. Once again, he is revered by some, Judas to others.

But you will note, once again even the administrators of the sport he has turned down this time have jumped staunchly to his defence.

There is a reason. Sonny Bill Williams is no show-pony. He does not court off-field drama, drink, womanise, jump off ferries or bunny-ears a senior statesman. Nor does he bite, gouge, stamp or punch (not out of the boxing ring anyway).

Simply: he is perhaps the finest general athlete of a generation, mentally resilient, focused and diligent of work ethic. He chooses sports to play because he knows - and those who court him know - that he can be trusted to earn his spurs rather than demand them as divine right.

Those who do him down would do well to sit back and simply enjoy watching whatever he does if given the chance. It'll be a while before such a talent comes round again.

Loose pass compiled by Richard Anderson

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