The European Champions Cup, what’s changed?

rugbyLast season the Quarter Final line up consisted of 4 English team’s, 3 French team’s and 1 Irish province whilst this season there would appear to be fewer English and French teams and they’ve been replaced by 1 Welsh side and a Scottish region.

Of the sides who qualified for the knock out stages last season 4 of the teams are the same (and always they all appear to be the teams who traditionally spend the most money):

  • Wasps, on the back of George Smith’s heroics (with Matt Mullan and James Haskell also featuring in the tournament’s top 10 tacklers)
  • Toulon, whose imperious home form has seen them average almost 43 points per home game this season,
  • Saracens, for whom Chris Ashton and Owen Farrell have combined for 14 clean breaks in the tournament so far and Chris Wyles is the tournament’s top try scorer
  • Racing Metro (or Racing 92 as there are now known) who have one of the competitions top assist producers in “smokin” Joe Rokocoko

Those 4 will probably be joined by:

  • Leicester Tigers under the guidance of former All Black Aaron Mauger who delivered Munster a 31-19 defeat in Thomond Park
  • Glasgow Warriors who have giant winger Taqele Naiaravoro who leads the clean break statistics and has gained more metres than any other player in the competition.
  • Ulster should be the sole Irish province in the Quarter Finals who became the first team to defeat Toulouse at home this season.
  • Ospreys should return to the Quarter Finals on the back of the tournament’s leading scorer Dan Biggar and with Lloyd Ashley and Dan Lydiate who have both recorded 46 tackles in the 319 and 315 minutes they have played respectively.

The eventual Quarter Final line-up could see 3 matches between teams who have been in the same Pool’s during the round robin stage of competition. Leicester should finish as the number seed and should face the Ospreys at Welford Road; Saracens should finish the preliminary round of games as the second seed and may very well face their Pool 1 opponents Ulster. Racing 92 could host their Pool 3 opponents Glasgow and Wasps could face a very uncomfortable trip to the Cote D’Azur to face Pool 5 opponents who they comfortably beat 32-6 in Coventry but Toulon have since welcomed Mama Noun and Duane Vermeulen into their squad while Wasps have lost their star winger Christian Wade to injury.

Eddie Jones’ England, maybe? (Pt. 3)

Itoje made his club debut at the age of 19 (which is pretty unheard of for a tight 5 forward, but he was an International shot putter at Under 17 level so hardly lacked for physical presence or strength as a teenager) and he was called up to the England Saxons squad as a 20 year old. Itoge is the name most forward thinking journalists have put forward to lead Eddie Jones’ new England era and it’s difficult to argue against that plan, he captained England Under 20’s to a Junior Rugby World Cup trophy in New Zealand in 2014 and was also the Captain of a very successful Saracens LV Cup campaign last season. The major obstacle standing between any newcomer and the Captain’s armband is the knee jerk reaction which lead the RFU to fire the last man who tried to grow along with and develop a new England side using youngsters. England’s last 2 Head Coaches have essentially been dispensed with because they failed to win a RWC, while Martin Johnson’s naivety and misplaced trust in a group of frankly puerile players (which included Dylan Hartley remember) ultimately cost him his job Stuart Lancaster’s main failure seemed to be that he didn’t live up to the bizarrely high expectations of the English rugby media. England lost a nail biter to Wales when referee’s decisions were fairly instrumental to the final result and then lost to eventual finalists Australia, so no shame there then really, unless you write for an English newspaper and were obsessed with Sam Burgess. If Eddie Jones feels that he’s only got 4 years to prove that he’s the man for to turn England into the powerhouse the press seems to think they should be then he may become as discombobulated as Stuart Lancaster ended up.

 

In the back row there could be an even stronger Saracens influence with a real chance that all 3 could be from the Barnet based side as the new management team will surely learn from the previous regime’s mistakes and plump for a balanced back row rather than trying to crowbar their 3 favourite players into the same unit regardless of the final group dynamic. Billy Vunipola is just 23 years old but the 19 stone number 8 already has 21 caps to his name and until Nathan Hughes’ English residency period is complete Vunipola is really the only stand out prospect at 8. Will Fraser is as close to Sam Warburton as England have but he unfortunately has an even worse injury record than the Wales’ skipper. He’s 27 but has played just 48 games since 2011, he’s incredibly strong over the ball, a very good ball player for a forward and more importantly having missed virtually all of last season he’s fit and playing regularly this term. There are a number of alternative applicants for the 7 jersey though, Matt Kvesic has been sensational for Gloucester this year as his front 5 have finally found a platform from which he can launch. There’s always Steff Armitage, but whether Eddie Jones will be allowed to pick players outside the Aviva Premiership is a whole different conversation (remember the ton of crap he has to wade through?). Leicester Tigers new boy Brendan O’Connor is English qualified despite being a Junior Rugby World Cup winner with New Zealand Under 20’s in 2009 so he might be a controversial inclusion. Another slightly leftfield choice for the number 7 short would be Jack Clifford, not because the 22 year old Australian born flanker doesn’t always make a great impact for Harlequins but because he’s only featured for their first team 26 times. He has scored 6 times in those games though and has represented England in the IRB World 7’s Series, like Itoje he Captained England Under 20’s to a Junior Rugby World Cup, Clifford’s side including Nowell, Slade, Watson, Hill, Cowan-Dickie and Barrow won it in 2013 as they became the first England side to win the trophy so he’s bound to bring character and leadership to the squad. Saracens blind side Jackson Wray has been excellent whenever he’s played this season and he must be pushing hard for a first senior cap, Wray is just over 6 feet tall but what he lacks in physical presence he more than makes up for in mobility and the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, he’s usually the ball carrier at the back of rolling mauls and he’s recorded an impressive 11 tries in 85 games for Saracens, even more impressive is the fact that Saracens have won 75% of all the games in which he has been involved. Wray plays a key role in the Saracens much vaunted “Wolfpack” defence that Paul Gustard has been hired to install with England so Wray’s inclusion would be no surprise particularly given his impressive domination of the breakdown this season. There are alternatives available for Jones and his coaching team though and if they are looking for a physically dominant and almost overpowering presence they may well look at Wray’s fellow Essex boy Matt Garvey form Bath, the 6 feet 6 man mountain hasn’t quite reached the level he was at before his ankle injuries in 2014 but his ability to play in both the second row and back row would be appealing to the coaching staff. Jamie Gibson is almost an English Kieran Read, the only problem with having a back rower who can run with backs is that they occasionally neglect their primary responsibility of winning the ball so the show ponies in the backline can actually have some ball to run with in the first place.

 

There are definitely more than enough talented players for Eddie Jones to pick from if he wants to try and emulate the style and panache with which his Japan team played at the Rugby World Cup, but he could always go down the Warren Gatland road and develop a gameplan, select the biggest and strongest players available and try to amalgamate them together in sort of unsightly emulsion. With half of his coaching team already in place and fewer than 50 days before the 6 Nations Championship begins this and other important decisions need to be made quickly. The most important decision he needs to make is who will be England’s next conditioning coach because if there was one area where they were found wanting in the Rugby World Cup it was their decision making late in games which was surely a result of tired minds as well as tired bodies.

Eddie Jones’ England, maybe? (Pt. 2)

Alongside Sam Hill at Outside Centre it’s difficult to see past Wasps’ Elliot Daly, the 23 year old recently played 2 Champions Cup games against England’s current 13 Jonathan Joseph and made him second best in most situations, trotting for 1 try from a Bath handling error and dropping a goal to boot. Allied to Daly’s ability to keep a scoreboard ticking in open play he as that most prized of assets in an International back, a howitzer of a boot from the tee and can make 50+ metre kicks look easy. Daly’s Head Coach at Wasps certainly thinks he should be first choice for England, at the weekend Dai Young was quoted as saying Daly is “a cert” for the next England squad. At scrum half Jones has a tricky decision to make and while it’s difficult to pinpoint what sort of 9 he’d prefer to select it easy to seperate England’s op[tions at 9 into 2 individual categories, one’s who can run and ones who control a game. If Jones is after the latter and wants a 9 who already has a rapport with his 8 and 10 then another Saracen Richard Wigglesworth may well get the call as he already knows both Farrell (they’ve both been at Saracens since 2010) and incumbent 8 Billy Vunipola (Jones picked the 18+ stone David Lyons when he coached Australia, so he’s not looking for a Ryan Kankowski type number 8). Wigglesworth’s cultured left boot also compliments Farrell’s right foot well. Other options who will be considered by the new management team are the speedster’s Ben Youngs or Danny Care, the even speedier Joe Simpson who probably provides his 10 with better service than the former 2 options and those in the know say that Exeter Chiefs number 9 Will Chudley has the best all round game in the position so England are certainly not short of options.

 

Fullback is a very interesting decision for Jones and co. Mike Brown came out and said he’d lost trust in his England teammates post RWC so how the players and coaches respond to that sort of revelation will be fascinating, obviously if they want a controversial and outspoken number 15 then Brown is obviously the front runner but Bath’s Anthony Watson and Exeter Chief Jack Nowell are both very exciting runner’s when they enter the backline and Ben Foden is regarded as one of the stronger defensive fullbacks in the game and has still got the pace to leave most defenders in his wake when he attacks. Saracens Alex Goode is in a particularly good run of form at the moment too and his footballing ability allows to act as an auxillary 10 or 12 in case of emergency which is always appealing to a coach.

 

With regards to the new look Forwards (and glossing over the RFU’s absolutely shambolic hiring of a coach without first approaching the English club who already employed him) it’s difficult to imagine that Saracens successful start to the season won’t once again large loom in the management team’s thoughts. However the stand out English loose head prop in recent times has to be Nick Auterac. Another 23 year old, Auterac has only been involved in 39 senior matches in his fledgling career but 26 of those games have ended in wins, 19 of which have come since he joined Bath (from Saracens) in 2014. Whilst Bath’s scrum hasn’t been particularly dominant so far this season Auterac is always busy around the pitch and can be an effective ball carrier as is Mako Vunipola of Saracens who may well be the second choice.

 

Hooker is again a rather controversial position with the shadow that cast Dylan Hartley casts over proceedings, if, as has been largely rumoured he’s to be named skipper then Jones must be expecting him to be available more than he’s banned. The strangest thing about naming a front rower as Captain is that hardly any front row players are on the field for the full 80 minutes, so the vice Captain will be as important as the skipper (maybe the replacement Hooker will also be the vice Captain). Hartley is the stand out option for the 2 shirt, largely because he’s sheer size greatly aids scrummaging, Tom Youngs who was a Stuart Lancaster favourite is around a stone lighter than Hartley and about 3 inches shorter too. Mike Haywood who has been filling in for Hartley in Northampton colours could be in with an outside chance of an England place because he’s been particularly impressive but he is even lighter, almost 2 stone lighter than Hartley. Bath’s Rob Webber could be in Jones’ thoughts and he’s bigger than Hartley weighing in at over 18 stone, another Exeter Chief Luke Cowan-Dickie was highly thought of by the previous management and he’s 2 pounds heavier than Hartley but like all of the options for Hartley’s backup his line out throwing can be quite erratic so Steve Borthwick’s already got something to focus on. Conversely Tight head prop is an area where England seem to be particularly blessed, both Dan Cole and Kieran Brookes both appear to be playing well enough to make an impact at International level whether Jones will favour the mobile Cole or the 19+ stone monster that is Brookes is impossible to say. Lock forward is probably the are where England have the most strength in depth with Attwood, Launchbury, Lawes, Slater, Parling all established Internationals and youngsters like Charlie Matthews, Dom Barrow all pushing for a place but there are 2 incredibly prominent faces pushing for recognition in North London in the shape of the 6 feet 6 inch 25 year old George Kruis and the 6 feet 5 21 year old Wunderkind Maro Itoje. Kruis has played in 10 Test matches so far for England but started just 4 of those and Itoje is yet to feature for the senior International side although he was called into the pre-RWC training camp alongside Elliot Daly.

Eddie Jones’ England, maybe? (Pt.1)

Despite the RFU not being able to arrange a visa (for a man who has already worked in England) in time for his official start date Eddie Jones has plenty to look forward after his appointment as England’s new Head Coach (there’s a ton of crap for him to wade <no pun intended> through too but let’s conveniently gloss over that for the moment). Before Jones can tackle any of the fun stuff like actually selecting and coaching a team he’ll have to reacquaint himself with English rugby, he has had 2 spells with Saracens but the second of those spells ended in 2009 and he spent the next 6 years in Japan so only 5,936 miles (and 9 time zones) away then.
Early reports suggest that the new man will return to his old English club to form his coaching staff with the man he installed as a captain at Sarries Steve Borthwick favourite to take over as forward’s coach, a role he fulfilled with Jones for the Japanese national side. Jones also made Andy Farrell a co-captain alongside Borthwick during his tenure in North London and Farrell could remain as England’s defence coach as Jones transition’s himself into his new role, alternatively Saracens current “Wolfpack” defence coach Paul Gustard may be catching Eddie’s eye since Saracens have conceded just 4 tries in 6 Premiership games and only 59 points overall in those 6 matches. Eddie Jones also has links to another Saracens coach, the always impressive Alex Sanderson was recruited by Jones when Jones left Saracens for Queensland Reds and while that season ended with an ignominious 92-3 pasting at the hands of the Blue Bulls (some would call that sort of thing character building you know) Jones is well aware of Sanderson’s qualities and feel that such a good communicator would be an asset to his coaching team. Whether some, or any of those people are recruited by the RFU on behalf of Jones remains to be seen but Saracens have said that they would not stand in the way of either Sanderson or Gustard if they are approached by the RFU and wish to leave (one would imagine there’d be a hefty compensation package changing hands though).

 

Player-wise Jones would do worse than look in the direction of North London for the spine of his team too. But just in case there’s a suspicion that this was merely a few paragraphs of thinly veiled sycophancy aimed roughly in the direction of Barnet there are Saracens players involved under the previous England management team who shouldn’t feature in a regenerated squad, namely Brad Barritt (if the English rugby press were looking for a Centre to carry the can for the lacklustre RWC performance they should have picked the 22 cap man) and if Dylan Hartley is to return to the fold then it’s difficult to see how the man who he head butted to get himself banned from the RWC, Jamie George will.

 

Sam Hill should be Engand’s 12 for a long time to come, he along with Exeter Chiefs teammates Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade Hill (and Bath’s Anthony Watson) was involved in England’s 2013 Under 20 World Cup final win yet Hill is the only one yet to feature in the senior squad. He has the physicality need to be a strong defensive presence at the International level and the awareness and distribution skills that Barritt rarely showed during Lancaster’s tenure. Elsewhere in the back line Wasps Christian Wade must finally be given a chance to shine in the Test arena (having notched 53 tries in 89 club appearances so far in his career) if he’s fit for the 6 Nations otherwise Jack Nowell has been making a solid case for one win berth recently.  Saracens Chris Ashton who finished as the top try scoring back in the Premiership last season surely deserves a second chance under the new leadership.

 

It’s difficult to know what sort of style Jones wants his new England to play but whatever vision he has Owen Farrell should be the player to guide the backline (Henry Slade would definitely be a challenger to his position but with his unfortunate injury at the weekend he may not be fit to play in the 6 Nations). Farrell’s strength in defence and high percentage goal kicking are what every International team need from a 10 and with a ball playing 12 and a more attacking minded set of back’s outside him they’d be sure to provide more of a threat to their opponent’s try line.

London Irish v Wasps at the Aviva Premiership double header 28-11-2015

So, technically this is a week late now (not to mention incredibly brief) but the 2nd game in the double header definitely got the worst of the inclement weather, the rain became more persistent and with the 17:30 kick off time it was even colder than and windier than the 15:15 had suffered through.
Wasps rested George Smith who had been immense in both of their European Challenge Cup games and replaced him with Thomas Young, who is one of the chasing pack of Welsh open side’s who are trailing behind Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric in pursuit of the Welsh 7 jersey (along with Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, James Davies, Aaron Shingler’s played there too and Ollie Griffiths, Ollie Cracknell and I’d personally put Gloucester’s Daniel Thomas in the mix too). Thomas Young incidentally played well enough for George Smith to not be particularly missed, obviously Smith’s 111 caps worth of experience will always be valuable but the way the Wasps front 5 struggled to get a grip on the game would have detracted from Smith’s effectiveness too. Wasps struggles with a London Irish pack who welcomed double Rugby World Cup winner Ben Franks into the front row were in stark contrast to the way they’d steamrollered Leinster in Dublin and Toulon in Coventry in the previous 2 weeks. The forwards inability to provide their half backs with quality quick ball with which to attack meant that they really struggled to break down a solid if unspectacular Irish defence and until Thomas Young scored the 3rd try in the 70th minute they really could open up a lead of more than 13 points (they lead Leinster by 15 point after 48 minutes and Toulon by 17 after just 31 minutes). The apparent lack of fluency within Wasps as a whole seemed to effect Ruairidh Jackson’s goal kicking too and having missed just 2 kicks in Europe so far this season he missed 3 in the 51 minutes before he was replaced by Jimmy Gopperth (Gopperth himself missed 1 conversion but it was in the 75th minute with Wasps leading by 18 points).

 

London Irish themselves missed 8 points from the tee in the first 48 minutes, which would have seen them lead the game 16-13 until Eliot Daly skated in for a try in the 50th minute to take the score to 8-16.

 

Daly, was one the one shining beacon for rugby on an evening which saw a struggle between 2 packs where only Wayne Barnes’ whistle was the real winner and if Eddie Jones is selecting an England starting XV based on what he sees on the pitch and not what he reads in the press Daly has to be ahead on Jonathan Joseph in the race for the 13 shirt. Can any International coach really afford to leave out a player who can make kicking 60 metre penalties look easy?