By Charlie Morgan
The title of this piece has probably riled a few readers already – especially those of Celtic lineage. With that in mind, it’s best to offer a quick qualification.
I am massively disappointed that English clubs will not compete in Europe next season as things stand after the latest to-and-fro of snappy press releases. The Heineken Cup is my favourite tournament. For me, nothing else on the planet offers the same raw tribalism or kaleidoscope of contrasting styles. This weekend only reinforced how much of a shame it is to trade such a fantastic competition for BT’s riches.
Certainly, the “other option” Premiership Rugby is pursuing cannot match it. Meaningless fixtures against undercooked South African opposition aren’t enticing and like everyone else – not least the RFU’s chief executive Ian Ritchie – I hope we have a pan-European set-up that pleases everyone by 2015-16.
My argument purely surrounds the immediate impact on Stuart Lancaster’s national side. Many have suggested that a year in the wilderness will derail England’s bid to emulate the All Blacks with a home World Cup win. I don’t agree at all. Here’s why (and, no. Avoiding confidence-bruising spankings such as the one Northampton received on Saturday is not a reason!).
French disinterest will drop standards
Perpignan and Racing Metro were spineless this weekend. Toulon stuttered to victory at Sandy Park and Toulouse got hi-jacked by a team that had lost 10 on the bounce. In the Amlin, London Irish and Newcastle – a pair of Aviva Premiership strugglers – dispatched Stade Francais and Grenoble, comfortable mid-table outfits from across The Channel.
This demonstrated that the Top 14 stands at the summit of French priorities, far ahead of anything else. Having expressly stated they would prefer the English remain under the European Rugby Cup umbrella, you can be sure that motivation won’t rise next season. By then, Welsh regions will have been bled dry of Lions – definitely Jonathan Davies and Ian Evans, probably Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny, perhaps Alun-Wyn Jones and Adam Jones too.
A gargantuan tussle for domestic league television rights means French fat cats are sure to demand even more from big earners during Top 14 time. Europe is likely to become an afterthought. Continued Irish excellence and the odd Scottish performance alongside Italian perseverance won’t maintain the Heineken’s well-worn USP: “the closest thing to Test match rugby”™.
International calendar is tough enough
Prior to September 2015, England must negotiate two Six Nations campaigns and a three-Test tour of New Zealand. In the weeks leading into the World Cup, there’ll be late summer warm-up games – in 2011 that meant a double-header against Wales and a trip to Ireland. Next autumn, Lancaster starts with another All Blacks clash before South Africa, Samoa and Australia arrive at Twickenham consecutively. His charges must be battle-hardened and tuned into the strengths and weaknesses of each Webb Ellis contender.
Shorn of a European schedule and pending a replacement as yet, there are also nine free weekends that could be used for mini-camps should EPS agreements be tinkered. Not as drastic as Graham Henry’s 2007 approach – when 22 selected Kiwis traded the first half of the Super Rugby campaign for a fitness camp – this would enhance understanding (lacking among the backs last month) while alleviating any prospect of player burnout. Remember the contrast between an exhausted Chris Robshaw and fresh, firing Paul O’Connell in last season’s quarter-final between Harlequins and Munster? Months ahead of a World Cup, that would be worrying.
The Aviva Premiership holds its own
Gloucester’s mega-bucks capture of John Afoa was confirmed this week. Like George North’s move to Franklin’s Gardens last summer, it is a stamp of approval for the entire league and one that will surely benefit the Premiership. For one, given Richard Hibbard is also reportedly on the way to Kingsholm, the Cherry and Whites should finally find forward stability to complement their undoubted attacking spark.
Theoretically, next season’s Premiership should be stronger. Saracens, Saints, Leicester Tigers, and Harlequins have stellar squads and proven pedigree to push for the title. If Bath’s restructure settles down, they are right in the mix. Exeter are getting better, and will continue to improve with the presence of impetuous youngsters Jack Nowell and Henry Slade. We’ve touched on Gloucester, and even Sale seem to be getting their act together thanks in some part to Danny Cipriani.
In short, Lancaster does not need the Heineken Cup next season, either to ensure his current charges are in working order or to ascertain that a prospective ‘bolter’ – Nowell or Anthony Watson, for instance – is up to the task. Domestic matches will be sufficiently tough to provide a Litmus test. Against all odds, England can emerge from this Euro-shambles on solid footing.