Loose Pass: European competition, struggles in England and North’s move south

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image 5 December 2023.jpg

Leinster's James Lowe and La Rochelle's Paul Boudehent in action in the 2023 Champions Cup final, Newcastle Falcons coach Alex Codling and Wales star George North.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the onset of European competition, struggles in England and North’s move south…

Europe arrives!

The dust has barely settled on the World Cup, players are just easing their way back into regular club action… and now it’s time to jet across continents or hemispheres for European – and African – rugby again.

It’s always an exciting time in Europe, and while not perfect, the new format does clearly have a bit more going for it than the old one did; not least clarity and the need to probably win at least half your games to stand any chance of getting through.

Meantime, there’s some great old ties with some classic European rugby history in there. From a repeat of the very first final, when Cardiff take on Toulouse, to a good old-fashioned scrap between Bath and Ulster (current European score, Ulster 6, Bath 0 and Bath have seen three red cards in those matches) to a classic opening Sunday featuring South Africa’s two best fly-halves squaring off against each other, a repeat of last year’s thrilling Racing-Quins match and an action replay of last year’s – and the year before’s – final, it’s a weekend to strap yourself in for!

Hopefully. For when even commentators wonder out loud, as those on Sunday’s Leicester-Newcastle Premiership fixture did, whether you perhaps rest your players for European rugby, isn’t it glaringly obvious that there’s a little too much on some squads’ plates?

It seemed that way for Saracens, who were awful – by their own standards – in defeat at home to Northampton Saints on Saturday, but who probably had an eye on the long-haul flight to Pretoria and the enormous climate change they are about to face when travelling to play the Bulls in the Champions Cup. The same could be said of Exeter, who went down pretty limply to Bath; if they play like that in Toulon they’ll not have a prayer.

The Challenge Cup, has also had a revamp, with by some distance the most interesting set of games the ones featuring Georgian invitational team Black Lion. The side has been roaming around for a couple of years now, playing in the Currie Cup, as well as winning a European competition featuring teams from several nations in the Rugby Europe championship. It also embarked upon a tour of the Super Rugby Americas teams early last year, winning all those games too except for the one against the league all-stars.

The squad features a number of the Georgian World Cup squad, including the infamous beard of hooker Shalva Mamukashvili and outstanding fly-half talent Luka Matkava. They host Gloucester, for whom a trip to Georgia is absolutely the last thing they need.

But back to Black Lion: we should hope they do well and make a serious inroad into the competition as Argentina’s Jaguares did into Super Rugby. It will only make Georgia’s national team better and keep the foot wiggling in the door of the Six Nations.

When there’s nowhere to go

Alex Codling’s post-match interview after Newcastle had been soundly beaten by Leicester Tigers on Sunday was disturbing. It’s not as though Newcastle played badly, nor were they a team going through the motions in any way, but a visibly emotional Codling gave the clearest hint yet that the Newcastle project is running on fumes and could be the next one to run out of juice when he said: “the club has got decisions to make, to be honest, going forward, where it wants to go.”

But where is there to go? Stepping down to the championship is akin to jumping off a ferry and hoping to navigate the seas in a rowing boat – such is the level of neglect of England’s second tier. Upwards? That seems to need resources that just aren’t forthcoming. But just hanging around the basement as Newcastle seem doomed to be doing will do nobody any good, mentally or otherwise.

And if Newcastle do go to the wall, then what? A nine-team Premiership in which the top eight are guaranteed a European Rugby place? Or does the concept of a British league begin to look a little more attractive? It might to some, but it won’t to the United Rugby Championship teams, who seem to be rather enjoying themselves at the moment.

Newcastle are in a predicament for sure, but that is nothing to the predicament English rugby will find itself in should another of its teams go pop.

All roads lead to France

It’s not just England, though. Scotland lost Blair Kinghorn to a request for early release mid-season, and now George North has announced he is possibly aiming to continue his international career despite playing in France’s second division.

Provence may of course make it up to the Top 14, but it’s a long and arduous road to do so, and right now Vannes are the high-flyers in the Pro D2 – Provence would have to make it through play-offs and/or the classic ‘access’ game against the Top 14’s second-bottom team.

So there’s a high chance that North may be gracing the turf of Nevers one week, Rouen the next, following it up with the Six Nations – if Warren Gatland reckons he’s kept his sharpness.

But in one move, Provence did illustrate the ever-growing disparity in spending power between French teams and British ones. A different report last weekend reckoned that several Pro D2 clubs had salary budgets higher than Premiership ones.

With the court case against both the English and Welsh unions gathering momentum, with clubs unable to hold onto their best players in the face of tantalising offers from second-tier teams abroad, with clubs facing existential economic threats… what a time to be a rugby player in the UK right now.

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