Heineken Cup v Super Rugby
The merits of these 2 competitions have long been debated, with the respective hemispheres invariably supporting their own. It would appear, though, that for Test match-like intensity, the Heineken Cup has the edge. This was again confirmed in the weekend’s first round of games. Passion and ferocity were on display in each of the matches, with quality rugby and dramatic conclusions to several of the games.
For many players this was their first game of significance post the World Cup. For some it provided an opportunity to further enhance reputations which were established in New Zealand. For others redemption was in order after poor performances on the global stage and in some cases humiliating episodes off the field.
Whether it was Richie Gray’s dramatic try at the death for Glasgow in the win over Bath, Owen Farrell’s man of the match performance for Saracens in beating Treviso or Ronan O’Gara’s breathtaking drop goal for Munster in the epic battle against Northampton, we were reminded the H Cup weekends invariably provide terrific drama and excitement. With concerns being voiced globally over rugby attendances, the northern hemisphere would appear to have a winner in the Heineken Cup.
Warren Gatland will be encouraged to see the performances of the Welsh sides in the opening round of the Heineken Cup, with all three teams securing wins over French opposition. While not compensating for the World Cup semi-final defeat by France, these results will go some way to ensuring that Welsh rugby continues to build on the achievements in New Zealand. There have been false dawns in the Welsh game before, but it feels different this time.
Andy Robinson & Gregor Townsend will also be pleased to see wins for Edinburgh and Glasgow at the weekend. The Scots let themselves down in the World Cup by failing to protect leads in key games against England and Argentina, and as a result failing to qualify for the knock-out stages of the tournament for the first time. If they can keep the same coaching team in place, Scotland can continue the progress that has been achieved in the last couple of years, despite the World Cup setback.
The Irish provinces had mixed results with narrow wins for Ulster and Munster, a draw for Leinster and a brave defeat for Connaught in their debut in the Heineken Cup. There were positives in the performances of a number of key players in the national squad, but none more so than Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton who both kicked vital last minute goals.
Northampton will no doubt have used the heart breaking loss to Leinster in the last Heineken Cup Final as motivation during preparation for this season’s campaign. To endure another last minute defeat to an Irish province as this year’s competition got under way will have been hard to take. The Saints defended with great discipline and tenacity during the final minutes of Saturday’s pulsating encounter, and would be permitted a feeling of despair as Ronan O’Gara finally kicked the winning drop goal, after 41 phases of play.
This was a remarkable passage of play amid tension of the highest order. What was possibly more remarkable was the transformation in the play and commitment of five Saints players who performed poorly while wearing the red rose of England during the World Cup. It is hard not to credit Northampton Director of Rugby, Jim Mallinder, for this metamorphosis. Some coaches can inspire players to perform to the maximum of their ability, and Mallinder clearly fits into this category.
It would be surprising if he is not a candidate for the Head Coaching job with England as and when the position becomes vacant. He would, however, be well advised to refrain from blaming referees when his side loses, as he did again on Saturday. The knock-on by impressive young Russian winger Vasily Artemyev, with the try line at his mercy, was a more legitimate explanation for the Northampton loss. Graham Henry, Robbie Deans, Declan Kidney and others have learned to bite their lip when facing the cameras after a result which may have been influenced by referee error, Mallinder should follow their lead.
With much focus continuing to be on Martin Johnson and the turmoil at the RFU, other national coaching positions are vacant with appointments likely before the end of the year.
The Welsh RFU are to be applauded for securing the services of Shaun Edwards as defence coach beyond the 2015 World Cup. For a man who never played professional rugby union, Edwards has enjoyed huge success since moving into coaching the code. His record in winning Four Premierships and two Heineken Cups with Wasps and taking Wales to a Grand Slam in 2008 and last month’s World Cup semi-final, speaks for itself. This proud Englishman has nailed his colours to the Welsh mast, further evidence of the damage the current ructions at Twickenham are causing the game in England.
Meanwhile Peter de Villiers has said that he will be reapplying for the head coaching role with the Springboks. PdV may not realise that the pantomime season is not yet upon us, because the thought of him continuing in the role is nothing short of a joke. Rassie Erasmus and Allister Coetzee continue to be viewed as realistic candidates and were either (or both) to be successful, coaching vacancies would need to be filled at the Stormers and / or Western Province. Gary Gold, John Plumtree and John Mitchell have also been mentioned in dispatches, but it would be a surprise were either of the Kiwis to be successful.