Is the lack of a single English club in the Heineken Cup semi finals down to a dearth of talent? Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson thinks not…
It’s fair to say that Saracens have been seen as the coming force in English rugby of late. They’ve been lauded by all and sundry as England’s meanest club machine, capable of destroying allcomers with a brand of teak-tough rugby that simply bulldozes the opposition and squeezes the very life out of them.
So what do we make of the fact that England’s last remaining competitor in this season’s Heineken Cup found themselves so comprehensively and unceremoniously dumped out of the competition against Clermont? And all this at home, too, when we’ve always been tempted to point the finger at French outfits as flaky and incompetent whenever they’re far, far away from their ‘jambon’ and their ‘fromage’.
Clermont’s 22-3 win in Watford was every bit as convincing at the scoreline suggests and the best that England has to offer were shown to be very much second best all afternoon long as the Michelin-backed Frenchmen asserted total dominance and total control.
It’s tempting to say that this inequity is down to financial inequality, salary caps and all the rest of it. But then again there were only two French outfits in the Heineken Cup quarter finals and the financially muscular Toulouse were deservedly beaten by Edinburgh, a club not exactly noted for its abundance of fivers in the bank. So that argument doesn’t really stack up, does it?
So is there a greater malaise in the English club game? Are we somehow lagging behind physically? Tactically? When Saracens Director Of Rugby Mark McCall is candid enough to admit that the Clermont game was “definitely a level up from what we experience week-in, week-out in the Premiership” then there’s clearly cause for concern. But what can be done about it?
Well the RFU’s hardline stance against England’s best players moving abroad seems like a decent enough starting point. To have the best of our nation’s players all competing domestically will obviously make our league stronger. But I can’t help but wonder whether it’s on the coaching side of the game that we might be able to improve. On the surface it’s a great thing that we have so many UK – and particularly English – coaches in charge of our clubs. The more these guys get experience the better things will be for the English game ongoing. But what we might be lacking right now is a broader view of how rugby is played and coached and analysed right across the globe. The Jake Whites, Nick Malletts and John Kirwans of this world have direct and considerable experience of the game as it’s played a long way from England, whereas for all of their good points the Richard Cockerills and Jim Mallinders have relatively more linear knowledge having never coached abroad. In the fine margin world of high-class professional sport it’s the little things that often make the difference and a broader knowledge of rugby in all its varying forms would seem to be a more than handy tool.
Will we see more foreign coaches coming into the English game? Well what we know for sure is that there’s an opening at Bath now we know that Ian McGeechan won’t be around next season. With the financial resources that owner Bruce Craig has at his disposal surely that would be a tempting proposition for any of those foreign coaches. Of course as long as the salary cap remains in place it will never be an easy win for English clubs to dominate on the European stage. But with a broader coaching vision in place I think we can safely say that the gap that currently exists between our best and the best of the rest would reduce.
As things stand right now, though, we’ll have to accept that our clubs are clearly not eating at European rugby’s top table. That’s a great shame, of course, especially given that the Final of this season’s Heineken Cup is due to take place at Twickenham in May. But let’s not get this all out of proportion. There’s no need to panic. England’s performances in the last Six Nations prove that we have the raw talent. It’s just that at club level we’re maybe in need of a little more direction, that’s all.
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