At last something to cheer about for England rugby supporters – a performance that showed true pride, grit and commitment. Rugby played at pace with players off-loading in the tackle. Skill and guts epitomizing the performance. Harlequins haven’t always endeared themselves to other clubs but their win away to Toulouse would surely warm the cockles of any England supporters’ heart.
Quins Director of Rugby, Conor O’Shea, said “it was the size of the heart versus the size of the wallet, and today the heart won”. Toulouse is the wealthiest club in Europe but that was shown to be meaningless against the most spirited display by an English club team in Europe in a long time. Stuart Lancaster will no doubt have noted the level of commitment on display and the likes of Chris Robeshaw, Mike Brown and Danny Care will have further boosted their 6 Nation’s selection prospects. Questions will inevitably be asked as to why (yellow card apart) Nick Easter can’t play as he did on Sunday when wearing the white (or black) shirt of England.
Chris Robeshaw – England Captain?
Credit must go to Chris Robeshaw for how he has lead Quins so far this season. Robeshaw was bitterly disappointed to miss out on selection for England’s world cup misadventure. He is unlikely to miss out on selection this time as he is playing superbly – viewed by some as the closest thing to Richard Hill since Richard Hill. He leads from the front and with only one loss so far this season, Robeshaw is clearly inspiring his Harlequins teammates. He speaks his mind but is diplomatic in front of the cameras.
Robeshaw currently has plenty on his plate, with Quins season coming together nicely. With only one cap to his name it might be premature to add the captaincy of the national side to his responsibilities at this stage. Perhaps a better strategy might be to appoint a caretaker captain and allow Robeshaw establish himself within the England team as they defend their 6N’s title this season. If he delivers for England as he has for Quins, he could be appointed long term captain when the permanent coach is finalised.
There is no doubt that Robeshaw has the skills and the composure to sit very comfortably alongside established national captains such as Warburton, McCaw, O’Driscoll, Dussatoir and Horwill.
With wins for Quins, Northampton, Saracens, Gloucester and Leicester it was a much more successful weekend for English clubs generally. All three Welsh teams lost and three of the four Irish provinces had impressive wins.
After four rounds of the Heineken Cup, the group leaders are Munster, Leinster, Ulster, Saracens, Edinburgh and Toulouse. 6N’s rugby introduces different dynamics, but the HC has whetted the appetite for the opening round of games in six weeks time. Of the home coaches, Declan Kidney will be most satisfied with what he has seen so far this season, but post the World Cup, each team will have points to prove.
Will it be another false dawn for Wales? Can Ireland exact revenge for the quarter final defeat by Wales at RWC? Can Stuart Lancaster start the turnaround of England’s fortunes? Will Scotland show that they are continuing to improve under Andy Robinson & Gregor Townsend? Will Philippe Saint-André introduce a greater level of consistency than France showed under Marc Lievremont? How will Italy fare in the post-Mallett era? A fascinating tournament awaits in February.
Sexton versus O’Gara
Two years ago, Jonathan Sexton was widely regarded as the heir apparent for the Irish number 10 jersey. Ronan O’Gara had been a stalwart of Irish rugby and looked to have capped his career off with the Grand Slam winning drop goal in Cardiff in 2009.
Declan Kidney has had the luxury of having both of these fine players at his disposal and has alternated them often to good effect. Sexton was chosen ahead of O’Gara for the home test against the Springboks in November 2009, kicking all of Ireland points in the 15-10 win against the then World Champions. Sexton struggled with his goal kicking at the World Cup and it was O’Gara who on taking over the kicking duties against Australia put the game beyond doubt with two penalty goals.
Who could forget Sexton’s man of the match performance in the final of last year’s Heineken Cup? He has played out of his skin for Leinster this season, as O’Gara has for Munster. However, Sexton has so far failed to consistently perform for Ireland as he does for his province. Despite O’Gara prematurely announcing his retirement from international rugby after the win against Australia in the RWC, he is still pushing for selection for the national team. While O’Gara will have his eye on another 6N’s campaign and possibly an elusive win over New Zealand in the three test series in June, it is time that the young pretender Sexton made the position his own. Sexton’s time has come but it looks like ROG will be waiting in the wings for a while longer.
Both Ian Richie and Steve Hansen were confirmed in their new positions last week and we wish them both well.
Some are concerned that the new CEO of the RFU is just another one of the blazer brigade, coming as he does from the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Ritchie’s reign at Wimbledon was one of great progress for the club. He is a man of substance and insiders in the tennis world suggest that he will be sorely missed. Ritchie will find the RFU in a state of shambles on his arrival but with a once in a generation opportunity for change.
Hansen on the other hand takes on the role of Head Coach of the All Blacks from the most successful coach in the history of the game. With 88 wins from 103 Tests in charge, Graham Henry has retired with an 85% success rate. Hansen will be supported by the New Zealand public and media for as long as his team keeps winning. If they struggle to reach the levels of performance of the World Cup winning side then Hansen can expect to come under pressure.
In many ways, Ritchie might have the less daunting task of the two.