With last year’s World Cup being dominated by the southern hemisphere teams, the old accusations of a disparity in class and talent were levelled at European domestic rugby in comparison to the Super Rugby competition. However, the past few weeks have shown English rugby is far from the dire straits it has been painted in previously.
The sun is finally coming out in England, and once again all 12 Premiership clubs are emerging from the mud and the rain to show that they do actually have skills, vision and the capability to play an appealing brand of attacking rugby.
Yesterday saw England outcast Christian Wade score not one but six tries against Worcester. The quality of his finishing and his ability to work his way out of brick walls of defence question why Stuart Lancaster never gave him more chance than the solitary cap he won on the Argentina tour of 2013. Injuries have hampered his career, but England cannot afford to waste his talent like they did with James Simpson-Daniel.
Eddie Jones must surely be paying attention now.
But Wade was only one highlight from an exciting, enthralling and energising fixture that saw 89 points scored and 14 tries between the two sides. But surely such a result only belongs in the apparently wonderful world of Super Rugby that enchants the world and makes others look on enviously?
Well, I sat down and watched South Africa’s The Sharks take on New Zealand’s Blues, and I was sadly very disappointed.
A combination of some of the worst handling skills I’ve seen in professional rugby for many years, and an almost constant stream of turnovers meant both sides struggled to build any momentum whatsoever. Moreover, both sides over-indulged in the ‘ping pong’ brand of rugby that is allegedly so pervasive and endemic across European rugby.
I was genuinely bored.
That’s not to say all Super Rugby is as woeful. When the New Zealand franchises meet the games are a mixture of forward ferocity and ‘all-court’ handling and awareness that leads to the ‘basketball’ scores that have become so associated with the game down south.
Subsequently, I read Marc Hinton’s excellent piece on ‘Stupor Rugby’ and he makes a number of excellent points, including the concept that the expansion of the tournament has diluted the quality available in each side, meaning the standard of the skills on show have also dropped.
Eddie Jones, in his usual irreverent style, said:
“We [Australia] used to have three teams of which two used to be very competitive and one might struggle a little bit. Now you’ve got one team that’s good, two teams that are struggling and two teams that don’t even know what their name is.”
Watching the Australian and South African sides in the tournament is hit and miss, with many more misses than hits at the moment. Quite literally, in the mind of pundit Stephen Jones, who described Exeter’s narrow loss to Wasps in the European Champions Cup as ‘Super Rugby but with tackling’ (via Out On The Full).
Furthermore, it helps no one in Japanese rugby when their newly – and unfortunately somewhat hastily – formed Super Rugby representatives The Sunwolves are wiped out 92 – 17 by a Cheetahs side that has been brazenly tepid this season.
We were all sincerely interested and delighted that both Argentina and Japan were getting involved in the tournament this year, but whilst the Jaguares have more than held their own, the Sunwolves have been outclassed more often than not, which really was a surprise to anyone.
Let’s go back to English rugby now, though.
After a disastrous World Cup for the national side, Eddie Jones has led a recovery that has included a first grand slam in thirteen years. But this improvement was already well under way for the clubs in European and the Premiership well before Jones took over the Red Rose team. The dominance of the quarter- and semi-finals of the Champions Cup by English sides is testament to the improving quality of rugby compared to previous season.
As well as the Wasps v Exeter quarter-final, which is arguably one of the greatest European games ever, we saw Leicester trounce Stade Francais with no little skill, power and tenacity.
Similarly, we saw Northampton’s second-string run league leaders Saracens so close. Put that together with Wasps and Worcester scoring tries for fun and Leicester’s Harry Thacker disappointing old-school hookers by illustrating dazzling footwork, startling pace and cheeky arrogance to score for himself. Together, you have an English renaissance as the season starts to close with a crescendo.
These were games that filled the watching crowds and millions at home with a sense of awe.
Forwards that grunt but can also pass, backs that are electric but resilient in defence. Turnovers might not be so common in this part of the world, but when they happen teams make the most of them.
When the sun smiles down on northern Europe, the English teams come out of hibernation, change their mindset and start to play. It is not a lack of skill that is holding English sides back at the highest level but perhaps a too negative approach to the game when the weather is not so beautiful and the skies not so bright.
But right now, with the way English sides are playing, I’ll continue to enjoy the quality of rugby being shown. For this rugby fan, it’s the real ‘Super Rugby’ on offer at the moment.
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