Bright skies for Eddie Jones and Welsh fans, dark clouds for Bath, Toulouse and Ireland's provincial heavyweights – there's a lot to discuss…
Bath lie eighth in the Aviva Premiership with a squad that could and should be league contenders. This is a club that splashes the cash like Michael Jackson did in the 1980s but they’ve made some weird purchases – they have more No 8s than some teams have props.
Bath currently have the feel of a management simulation game on a PC, where the buying of players and administration issues take precedence, whilst the on-field stuff is presumed to be an automatic function. But rugby doesn’t work like that, and it certainly isn’t working like that at Bath.
They have a points difference of just plus six, which reeks when you consider that they have backs such as George Ford, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Nikola Matawalu and Semesa Rokoduguni. Even with a struggling forward platform, you would expect a back-line of that quality to be finishing a high percentage of turnover ball – which they aren’t.
Last weekend’s defeat by Newcastle Falcons, if not being the final nail in the coffin, certainly means that the nails and wood have been ordered from Travis Perkins. The situation needs sorting sharpish, as owner Bruce Craig probably didn’t envisage Bath playing in next year’s Challenge Cup.
A Happy New Year for Eddie Jones
Whilst the rest of us are wringing our internal organs dry and squeezing our squidgy limbs into gym clothes like a Georgian sausage machine, Eddie Jones has the new year and the world at his feet.
With his clean slate now chalked up with the names of his desired coaching staff, Jones has the chance to drastically change the blueprint of English rugby by selecting some of the most exciting talent in Europe – English talent which ripped its way through European competition in December.
It’s an opportunity that international coaches dream of and one that no other home nations coach has. There are no relationships with players, no favourites and no certainties. Those players who once confidently sang on the back seats of the England bus may now be sitting in silence on their sofa come the Six Nations – allowing the likes of Elliot Daly, Henry Slade, Matt Kvesic and the remarkable Mario Itoje to move English Test rugby forward. Good luck, Mr Jones.
Feel-good factor returns to Wales
Welsh rugby in December wasn’t about player statistics, team selections or politics. It was about supporters. The Christmas and New Year derbies saw sell-outs at the regional grounds, which is a fantastic achievement for all of the commercial teams involved.
Many will argue that festive sell-outs have always been thus, and that is true. But this season’s fixtures felt different; they were also bolstered by scores of positive news and signings from around the regions.
The region’s grounds, and surrounding pubs, weren’t full of negative chat regarding marquee Welsh signings moving to England and France, it was largely about players coming home. The usual bar-room din had turned into a buzz, and pertained to Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar and Scott Williams remaining in Wales.
Welsh rugby is in a very different place this year than it was last. And whilst the maintenance of the Christmas crowds through the rest of the Pro12 campaign remains unrealistic this year, over the next five years it may not.
Toulouse disappoint everyone in Europe
Toulouse have five points in their Champions Cup group, just five, compared to the 19 of pool leaders Saracens. This may not seem out of place given the military efficiency of Saracens this season, but Toulouse’s performances in Europe last month fell inexcusably short of their performances in the Top 14, where they lead the way with Racing 92 and Clermont Auvergne.
Focusing on their domestic league is one thing but Toulouse have a greater responsibility, in the Champions Cup, than just to themselves.
When you enter arguably the toughest club tournament in the game you aren’t playing to merely please your club’s stakeholders, you’re also beholden to TV audiences and sponsors. Toulouse’s performance at Ulster was shameful; they didn’t make a single line break, which, combined with the subsequent home loss in the return fixture, has seriously distorted the group.
Toulouse have a fine history in Europe, having won the top competition four times, and whilst they may no longer have the most powerful pack, nor most skilful back-line, 100% commitment is the minimum requirement from well-paid professional rugby players.
Irish provinces receding
This will be incredibly well received over the Irish Sea… I can already hear the knives being sharpened on the Blarney Stone. But as was evident in December, the Irish provinces are no longer in the same buying space as the Aviva and Top 14 teams.
Whilst all four provinces occupy a position in the top six of the Pro12, the true measure for Europe’s elite club is the Champions Cup. Although Ulster have been highly competitive in Pool One, the performances of Munster and in particular Leinster have fallen way short of the glory years – and the simple reason is money.
For Leinster and Munster to be out of contention in Europe, in December, is unusual, but the situation has been building for two seasons. We don’t even need an in-depth conversation about relative incomes, private finance and TV deals – we simply need to look at the squads. Neither have the buying power to retain, nor replace, the quality of player that they could during the mid to late Noughties where both were able to dominate the European competition.
The demise of Irish cash, particularly the loss of the hugely talented Ian Madigan to Bordeaux-Begles, is a real worry for Irish rugby and the Pro12 as a whole.