Alan Watkins: Cohen's spite spoils cup spectacle while versatility haunts Healey

Friday 24 January 2014 03:00

The long weekend that has just passed was very exciting and I would not have missed it. But no one can pretend that the Heineken Cup quarter-finals added to the reputation of rugby football, whether as a spectacle or as a skill. The first half, for instance, of Toulouse v Northampton was nothing less than a disgrace to both sides.

Nigel Carr, the former Ireland flanker – whose career was cruelly cut short by a terrorist bomb – described it on British Eurosport as "schools rugby''. This struck me as a slander on the diminishing number of rugby-playing schools.

They might have knocked on, forward-passed and conceded turnovers galore. But they would not have displayed the niggling, the bad temper and, often, the sheer spite, which both teams did on Saturday. This last quality was most obviously shown by Ben Cohen, who lashed out after a tackle not once but twice: once, with his foot, at the end of the first half and then, with his fist, in the second.

Leicester v Munster was a more heroic occasion, not least because of the exploits in last season's final of Neil Back, rugby's own Diego Maradona. The Irishmen thoroughly deserved to win. Despite the weight of history it was a more civil occasion than the match in Toulouse the day before.

But this should not blind us to the mistakes made by both sides, in particular by the Leicester backs: not least by Tim Stimpson, who missed four penalties. However, there is no need to single out Stimpson. Steve Booth – an excellent wing who should be more greatly encouraged by Clive Woodward, the England coach – took his chance well. But the others were not easy either with themselves or with one another, as if they had never played together before.

This may give us a clue about what is now wrong with Leicester. Dean Richards, their director of rugby, is spoiled for choice. He has four top-class centres, of whom only two, Leon Lloyd and Ollie Smith (who did not put in an appearance on Sunday), are qualified to play for England. There is no stability there. At outside-half, there is no stability likewise but no width of choice either.

It is, I think, unfair to blame Austin Healey for Leicester's numerous errors. He is like the boy at the back of the class who is always blamed whenever any disturbance breaks out. Often the boy in question has red hair, which Healey does not. But in other respects he fulfils the same function of being conveniently available for blame ("It was Austin Healey that made me do it, Miss,").

Perhaps he brings his troubles on his own head: partly through a manner, which he shares with Matt Dawson, but mainly through his own versatility. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, player to suffer from his ability to occupy several positions. My advice would be to settle either for wing or for scrum-half and to forget about the outside-half position.

It is astonishing, when you come to think about it, that Richards, having allowed the promising Andy Goode to decamp to Saracens, has not filled this crucial position properly or even at all. It is even more astonishing that he has not settled on a scrum-half. And it is a wonder that, without a first-choice half-back combination Leicester have managed to win as many matches as they have.

Llanelli, similarly, brought their troubles on their own heads on Friday. With 15 men they would have beaten Perpignan at Stradey Park. This is the limit of my patriotic fervour – or, if you prefer, bias. They would not, in my opinion, have beaten Leinster at Lansdowne Road. It follows from this that I expect Perpignan also to go down to defeat in Dublin in just under a fortnight's time.

Dafydd Jones was a silly, but not, I think, vicious boy. He nevertheless deserved to be sent off by the referee, Tony Spreadbury. Gareth Jenkins, Llanelli's once more disappointed director of rugby then followed the usual practice of carrying on with seven forwards and seven backs. This is not only the usual practice but the traditional one as well.

There was a time – younger readers may find it difficult to believe – when substitutes were simply not allowed. If a player was injured and had to go off, his team had to shift as best they could with 14 men. If the injury occurred to a back, the coach (in those days, the captain) would withdraw a forward almost always the No 7, who would be plonked on the wing – almost always, for some curious reason, the left wing.

Substitutes change everything. On Friday, it would have been open to Jenkins to bring on a forward to replace Jones and to withdraw a back, probably one of the wings. He preferred to follow the conventional usage and to carry on with seven forwards and the usual quota of backs. I am not saying he was wrong. He knows a lot about the game. I merely wonder: that is all. In the meantime, I expect Munster to have a good chance in Toulouse.

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