Brian Ashton: England's hopes depend on clubs raising their games

Followers of English club rugby may feel disappointed, even alarmed, at the way the European campaign has unfolded, but there is no denying that this weekend's two-nation contest in the Heineken Cup is a fair and accurate reflection of the way things are at the top end of the northern hemisphere game.

France and Ireland, Ireland and France. Who, if they are being honest, can dispute that these countries are currently the dominant forces in our corner of the union world?

They have arrived here from entirely different directions, having taken totally different paths. The leading French teams have large squads, supported by spectacular amounts of money. There are still some clubs who consider the domestic Top 14 tournament to be their major priority, but increasingly, the real powerhouses of the game on the far side of the Channel define themselves by the Heineken Cup, which, as we saw during last month's wonderful quarter-finals weekend, is a very high level indeed.

The Irish, meanwhile, have come at it another way, with the best of their talent signed up on what might be called quasi-central contracts. Their season is specifically geared towards European and international rugby and in player welfare terms they are ahead of the game. The French tend to be reasonably well rested because squad sizes allow coaches the luxury of operating a rotation policy, but there is no substitute for a structured fixture programme of the kind that allows the men of Munster and Leinster to play just the right amount of high-intensity rugby at precisely the right stages of the season.

Last year, Ireland completed a Six Nations Grand Slam. This year, France did likewise. And now, each country has an equal split of the Heineken Cup semi-final action. Does success at international level trickle down into the elite club/provincial game, or is it the other way round? It seems to me that in the case of Ireland, where the Test side is predominantly made up of Munstermen and Leinstermen, a bit of both applies. Call it a virtuous circle.

Not so long ago, Munster were ferocious, entirely forward- oriented and Garryowen-driven. They are ferocious still – ask Northampton, who had the misfortune to visit Thomond Park in the last eight – but with judicious coaching and clever recruitment from south of the Equator, they have developed a more open- minded and open-ended brand of rugby. Leinster are the flipside. Long celebrated for their uninhibited approach to the attacking game, they now have something more concrete about them up front. To descend into the rugby vernacular for a second, they have found themselves some "dog".

I would mention here the contributions of two coaches. Declan Kidney was in charge at Munster before he stepped up to coach the Ireland national side and I'd be very surprised if he wasn't at the very heart of their transformation: indeed, you can see similarities in the way both Munster and Ireland have grown in recent seasons. As for Leinster, it is a sure sign of top-class coaching at work when a side becomes much more difficult to beat while losing nothing of the best of itself in the attacking sense. This is a precise description of Michael Cheika's achievement in Dublin, and when he moves to Stade Français in Paris next season, it may well be that they move forward every bit as rapidly.

This afternoon's Toulouse-Leinster contest has a special air about it. The two sides famously met in a classic quarter-final four years ago, Toulouse spurning the option of sticking the ball up their jumper in favour of playing the Irishmen at their own free-running game. They lost as a result and some people doubtless thought them daft. But for a great club like Toulouse, the challenge is the thing that matters most. To my mind, there is something admirable about players who have the courage to fail.

Biarritz, who meet Munster in tomorrow's tie, do not have a reputation for playing the "beautiful game": when I coached Bath in that same 2006 tournament and we met them in the semi-final, they played not to lose, and didn't. But last month, in their quarter-final with Ospreys, they revealed an adventurous side few of us knew existed and scored some thrilling tries as a result.

It seems to me that this mirrors developments in the international environment, where Marc Lièvremont has restored a sense of ambition to the Test side. His predecessor, Bernard Laporte, seemed intent on doing away with the romantic heart of the French game, or at least concealing it beneath an Anglo-Saxon skin. Now, freedom of expression is back in vogue and, as a consequence, we have two fantastic semi-finals in prospect.

Bath set to finish with bigger splash

I haven't had much to say about my old club Bath over the course of the season, but how could I ignore their outstanding victory over Wasps at Twickenham last weekend? It was great to see them playing with such belief, which manifested itself in their ability to score brilliant tries while their backs were against the wall.

Should they beat Leeds in the last round of league games next weekend, they will have to get their heads around a Premiership semi-final with Leicester at Welford Road. With Butch James and Olly Barkley back in harness in midfield and the South African No 8 Luke Watson proving his worth, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this game will live up to Heineken Cup standards.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all