England where art thou?

Posted: October 23, 2014 in European Champions Cup
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European Champions Cup

 As mentioned last week, this week we will be looking at the top three English sides performances in the opening round of the European Champions Cup and see how this might have a bearing on the England squad selection for the forthcoming November series of Tests against the Southern Hemisphere nations. Based on the performances of these three teams, with the exception of Saracens, if I was Stuart Lancaster I would be scratching my head at selection time, especially as for the most part English teams did not do particularly well in this opening round.

Saracens vs Clermont Auvergne
Final Score – Saracens 30 – Clermont Auvergne 23

Of the three fixtures we are looking at, this by far was the most entertaining as an evenly matched contest. The second best team in England versus the best team in France.  No prisoners taken and a contest from start to finish which showed some real pedigree in European rugby.

Both sides played well and provided us with plenty of attacking rugby, with tries aplenty but of the two sides Saracens played the more tactically astute game coupled with a rock solid defence. Chris Ashton and particularly David Strettle, who I was very surprised to see not get called for the England training squad for the November internationals, both had terrific games and were superb at finding gaps in Clermont’s defence.

Clermont had arguably more of the possession and at times were certainly the more adventurous of the two sides, but Saracens were particularly effective at closing them out wide on defence where French teams are always so dangerous. Charlie Hodgson matched his French counterpart in the kicking game at number ten, but both sides made good use of the boot and refrained from aerial ping pong matches.

It was fast flowing, exciting rugby and a good showpiece for the European game as well as showing that England has quality players capable of standing up to the Southern Hemisphere challenges heading their way next month.

Glasgow vs Bath
Final Score – Glasgow 37 – Bath 10

This fixture was entertaining especially if you were a Glasgow supporter. However England’s third best team quite frankly looked shambolic as a rampant Glasgow tore them to pieces.  If Bath represents some of England’s best attacking rugby going into November, then surely the Southern Hemisphere sides must be feeling pretty relaxed.  Glasgow were good, but not amazing and there was plenty of loose and unsupported ball there for the taking by Bath, but which they seemed unable to capitalise on.  Add to that a series of schoolboy handling errors on a glorious sunny afternoon in Glasgow, and English supporters must surely have been left scratching their heads.

Bath had flashes of brilliance particularly in the towering form of Semesa Rokoduguni, but to be honest that was about it. Glasgow had all the flair and panache and shored it all up with solid defence.  Glasgow obviously studied Bath’s strengths and recognised that denying the likes of Rokoduguni and company possession would effectively leave Bath bereft of ideas.  Glasgow then proved to be the more adventurous of the two sides and despite some highly risky passes that against a more coherent opposition would have led to several interceptions and possible tries, they used their momentum to comfortably wear down Bath and walk away the convincing winners.

In short any players Stuart Lancaster takes from Bath, will need to figure out how to play in a very different team setup and do it quickly, and also learn some important defensive skills, which from what was on display on Saturday, were essentially nonexistent.

Racing Metro 92 vs Northampton
Final Score – Racing Metro 92 20 – Northampton 11

It is always hard to judge French club teams as such a high percentage of their squads are made up of foreign players. Nevertheless, there is a strong underlying French presence and famous French flair in all their teams and this was certainly the case in this contest.  Northampton on the other hand, supposedly the best club side in English rugby had absolutely no flair whatsoever and epitomised the rather drudge like defensive game that English rugby is so often criticised for.  Stuart Lancaster has drawn a large part of his training squad from Northampton and from what I saw, I think it is a decision he may live to regret.

To say that Northampton were unimaginative when compared to their French opponents last Saturday would be being polite. In short there was no attacking game, a fairly woeful kicking game and a defence that although effective at times relied more on Racing Metro making mistakes and resulting penalties than actually getting good go forward ball.  In short, not much to get excited about from an England perspective.  If this is top class English rugby at its best then the tourists from the Southern Hemisphere in November will be licking their lips.

The only thing that could be said about this match that may have prevented both teams from playing to their full potential could have been the officiating which was again a problem in the form of Ireland’s George Clancy. Once again Clancy was highly inconsistent in his calls particularly at scrum time.  One could sense the player’s frustration and there is no doubt that this would have affected both teams.  Still despite there being no excuse for it and hopefully something which will be addressed by the IRB soon, Northampton still could have played far better and with more skill than they did.  Let’s hope for England’s sake next month that George Clancy is not officiating any of their games and that the players selected for England from Northampton spend the next two weeks watching all of this year’s Rugby Championship matches to figure out how the game should be played.

Fixtures this weekend

This weekend we will be looking at the top three French teams performances in the second round of the European Champions Cup; Clermont-Auvergne, Toulon and Montpelier. As result the games we’ll look at are:

Ulster vs Toulon

Clermont Auvergne vs Sale Sharks

Montpelier vs Glasgow

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