European form undermines English separatists

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The updated version of my Six Nations' Championship table, based on the results so far in rugby union's Heineken European Cup, shows a change from last week. England have gone down a place and France up one. The table is as follows: 1 Wales, 2 Ireland, 3 France, 4 England, 5 Scotland, 6 Italy. This is based on the points obtained nationally, expressed as a percentage of points possible. Thus Welsh clubs have 28 out of a possible 40 points, giving them 70 per cent. The Irish clubs have 63, French 56, English 44, Scottish 25 and Italian 0.

The updated version of my Six Nations' Championship table, based on the results so far in rugby union's Heineken European Cup, shows a change from last week. England have gone down a place and France up one. The table is as follows: 1 Wales, 2 Ireland, 3 France, 4 England, 5 Scotland, 6 Italy. This is based on the points obtained nationally, expressed as a percentage of points possible. Thus Welsh clubs have 28 out of a possible 40 points, giving them 70 per cent. The Irish clubs have 63, French 56, English 44, Scottish 25 and Italian 0.

Even though France have changed places with England, the most striking feature of the competition till now - although things may look somewhat different in January - has been the disappointing performances by some of the leading clubs of the two countries.

Few thought that Castres would prosper. Nor have they. But Toulouse, the mightiest side in Europe over the past decade, have been all over the place. Of the English clubs, Bath, Northampton, Saracens and Wasps have all played well below par, though with the last two sides there has been a distinct element of bad luck.

I do not expect the pattern to be repeated exactly in next year's Six Nations' Championship or, for that matter, in the various international matches that are to take place before Christmas. Even so, the development is encouraging to someone like myself, who believed that the Rugby Football Union should have been sat on much harder when, a few years ago, it tried to detach English rugby from the British Isles and make it part of the southern hemisphere.

My only regret is that the two Scottish sides in the competition have not done better. While the Irish are used to provincial rugby, and both Ulster and Munster have a proud history in the cup, Glasgow Caledonians and Edinburgh Reivers are largely made-up sides. No doubt it was sensible to bring the various Edinburgh old boys' - or in theory old boys' - clubs under one roof. But it is a pity that such famous sides as Gala, Hawick and Kelso, if necessary amalgamated and re-christened The Borders, can no longer have a go in Europe.

Still, the competition has been an enormous success, perhaps more interesting and more hard fought than any since its inception in 1995. It has made the recent Rugby World Cup look pallid by comparison. It has kept rugby enthusiasts enthralled. But what of those who are not so enthusiastic to begin with? What of the person who knows something, but not a lot, about the game and who turns on the television on a Saturday afternoon? Will he or she be similarly fascinated? Somehow I doubt it.

Despite the elevation of the try to five points and the more recent efforts - some of them misguided - to speed up the game, matches are being won and lost by the boot. It was always so, but during the last few weekends the tendency has been even more pronounced. Wasps did not prosper in the earlier stages, partly because of the kicking failures of Kenny Logan. He should not be judged too harshly. He is what I call a club-created kicker - he took up the duties which were imposed upon him from on high.

But where, I ask myself, would Wasps be now if they had been able to pick Gareth Rees throughout? If he is thought to be too old, or too slow, why? Bung him out on the left wing where it does not really matter how old or slow you are provided you can still knock the ball over the crossbar, as Rees undoubtedly can.

Admittedly Logan kicked seven penalties and a conversion against Stade Français on Sunday. But in the same match, Diego Dominguez kicked eight penalties and a conversion - and a Wasps player helped his last penalty over the bar. Then on Saturday, Bath beat Munster by six penalties to an unconverted try. On Friday Cardiff beat Saracens, the better side on the night, by eight penalties to two converted tries.

In all these matches - the illustrations could be multiplied - there were not only kickers who were on form, but also, on the opposing side, kickers who could not do anything right. For Cardiff, Niel Jenkins had a 100 per cent record while for Saracens, Thomas Castaignÿde and Duncan McRea both had a miserable evening. For Bath, Matt Perry and Jon Preston were highly productive, while for Munster, Ronan O'Gara looked incapable of putting an egg in a saucepan of boiling water. Stade's Dominguez was slightly more impressive than Logan, who was, however, an improvement on his earlier self.

It is fair to say the more distinguished a player, the more he is likely to be in favour of penalties. This is particularly so of international forwards, who hate to see opposing forwards getting away with cheating. I see their point of view. But I do not think it is going to make rugby union a mass-audience sport.

Comments