Spring rugby can reach parts other seasons can’t reach and a European quarter-finals weekend didn’t disappoint. Despite only Saracens and Wasps being left in the Champions and Challenge Cup semi-finals, it was Henry Arundell, who stole the headlines after scorching the earth with an iconic try for London Irish out at the Stade Mayol. Elsewhere, there was the nailbiting drama of a first penalty shootout since 2009 as the nerveless Antoine Dupont – who else? – broke Munster hearts after an all-time classic. There were ample reminders why we love this game…
Arundell goes viral
In a dusty old RFU manual from the dawn of professionalism, there is a section on the types of player a budding coach might encounter. As they stand under a ball dropping from the sky, the tome reasons that players can be split into four categories. Type one, and least desirable: can I catch it? Type two: if I catch it. Type three: when I catch it. And, the manual tells us, the most prized of all, type four: after I’ve caught it. For Henry Arundell, the precocious London Irish teenager, the boffins really ought to add a fifth: once I’ve caught it and run past half a dozen internationals.
We will be spooling through Arundell’s outrageous try on the Cote d’Azur for years to come. We will be gushing over the lad for even longer. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again. Wizardry, every step of the 114m gallop.
There is something pure about a 19-year-old operating on such raw, fearless instinct. Unburdened by the consequences of error or miscalculation. Or perhaps simply refusing to contemplate anything but a favourable outcome. In that moment, Arundell could have been playing under-14s, or fifth division social stuff on a quagmire somewhere in the West Country, never mind igniting one of the game’s grandest cathedrals.
How many players would have taken the ball, as the full-back did, five metres from his own line, and hoofed it clear? How many, in the age of percentages and structure and pragmatism, would have taken the safe option? How many would have seen the opportunity to begin with, and of those, how many would possess the brawn and skill to seize it?
The try had the lot. Searing top-end speed. Jolting acceleration. Sense-scrambling footwork to open up space where a beat earlier, none had existed. All delivered in sheeting rain that coated the ball like olive oil. Five Toulon chasers were left flailing, two of them with the same devilish stop-star, in-and-out maneouvre. Stade Mayol is a febrile place and it was gripped by a horrified, disbelieving sense of awe as Arundell beat man after man, international player after international player, before plunging in at the corner. As rugby grapples to free itself from the chains of tedium, Arundells are the future.
Alright, we are hyping this boy up something crazy here; let’s dab the brake pedal a little. Arundell has played only 12 senior games for London Irish, five of them starts. Three more for England Under-20s. Fifteen matches played, eleven tries scored. That bonkerdom in Toulon was not the first banger either. After just 12 games of men’s rugby, it is early yet to herald him the second coming of Jason Robinson. He needs more minutes and exposure and testing, and obstacles litter the path to greatness.
What Arundell will definitely face – and pretty soon too – is a serious, career-defining decision. He is English born and bred, but eligible for Scotland and Wales through family. You can bet every pound you have the Scottish staff will be playing bagpipe music into his ears about now, no doubt selling the dream of 100 caps and legendary status as the heir to Stuart Hogg, rather than vying with Freddie Steward and making do with a stop-start Test career. If Gregor Townsend has his way, Arundell will be touring Argentina with Scotland this summer. If it’s up to Wayne Pivac, he’ll be on the sun-blistered paddocks of South Africa. Eddie Jones will have something to say about that.
Never mind the wrangling and the cynicism for now, though. Just bathe in the brilliance. Revel in the audacity. Marvel at that try again and again, and with each watch, you’ll notice something different. Another telling little flash of class. After Hendry Arundell has caught it – you’re in trouble.
Leinster’s to lose
There was a moment during an hour-long conversation when Mick Dawson, the outgoing – in every sense of the word – Leinster chief executive, let his guard slip. This was six months ago, essentially a discussion framed around Dawson’s recollections of two decades at the top.
“We really want to get a fifth star stitched onto the shirt,” Dawson said, referring the missed opportunities Leinster have endured since the embroidery department went to work on their jerseys after the 2018 Champions Cup win.
A final, semi-final and quarter-final have been lost in the years since that fourth Champions Cup win in Bilbao, blows cushioned by Pro14 victories in those seasons. Yet there is a marked difference between the respect delivered to a Pro14 champion compared to the pride felt by the Gallagher Premiership or Top 14 winners.
That’s partly why Leinster took the risk they did prior to Welford Road on Saturday. A tour of South Africa, where a youthful Leinster side took bonus point defeats from games against Sharks and Stormers, was notable by the absence of their frontliners.
The danger was they would be going in soft against Tigers. A 20-0 half-time scoreline made a mockery of those fears.
By making that decision to blatantly prioritise Europe over domestic requirements, Leinster have stolen a march on their Champions Cup rivals. They have been able to peak for the knock-outs, to educate their kids in end-of-season URC dates, while resting the Sextons, Furlongs, Ringroses, Henshaws.
No one else could do that. Fellow URC side, Munster, needed the points, likewise Leicester, Toulouse, La Rochelle. Wear and tear catches up on teams, Munster starting Saturday’s game without the injured Dave Kilcoyne, RG Snyman, John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes, Andrew Conway. It cost them.
As for Leinster, their two-week break prior to Saturday’s date in Welford Road, kept them fresh. They needed that energy over 80 minutes, while this weekend’s opponents, Toulouse, were left sapped by the extra 20 minutes required to see off Munster. So it’s advantage Leinster. They have already qualified as top seeds for the URC knockouts so can rest their big-hitters for their final regular season game against Munster if they choose. A Champions Cup semi and final is the sandwich around that meaty derby. They’ve Toulouse next. It’s theirs title to lose.
Salary cap cut hinders English club’s Euro ambitions
Alex Sanderson is a straight shooter. Refreshingly candid, he calls a spade a spade, so when tasked with explaining his side’s exit from the European final eight for the second year running, he didn’t need encouragement to lay the blame at the door of Premiership Rugby’s decision to reduce the salary cap to £5m, from £6.5m to help, clubs recover from the financial blow incurred by the pandemic. “We don’t have the money to sign the quality needed,” he said. “There’s been a difference in the salary cap forever between the French and English clubs. Toulon used to have a £20m salary cap and the English clubs were on £5-6m – and yet they managed to win.” Over and out from Paris.
The slow talent drain out of the Gallagher Premiership is threatening to become a torrent. First Duane Vermeulen plumped for Ulster over a bevy of Premiership suitors, then former All Blacks Vaea Fifita left Wasps for the Scarlets, while Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager will cash in over in Japan, with Sale trying to balance the books.
Sanderson is not the first coach to bemoan the cuts. Steve Diamond says it risks the league become a ‘third-rate option’ while Rob Baxter has openly admitted that Exeter Chiefs were struggling to recruit the quality that had seen Nic White head to Sandy Park, while losing Tom O’Flaherty and Jonny Hill, to Sanderson’s Sale Sharks.
It has left players concerned for their future and an England legend in Mike Brown, struggling to find a club, despite his continued good form. For the near future, signings like Handre Pollard to Leicester Tigers maybe outliers. On the flip side, responsible accounting may lead to less financial headaches for accountants and benefit the England side with a higher percentage of English qualified players dominating Premiership squads. Don’t, however, expect English sides to be lifting the Champions Cup any time soon. The best talent goes where the money is.
Time for the WRU to show the public its vision
It’s been yet another week of soul-searching in Wales. After The Times reported that the WRU were considering cutting the number of regions from four to three, after commissioning the Oakwell Report for a reported £25,000, there was understandable rancour and incredulity coursing around social media at the suggestion that the Dragons, or Ospreys could indeed face the same fate at the Celtic Warriors in 2004.
On a weekend where, yet again, Welsh professional sides were left to play out an entertaining, yet meaningless derby, while the business end of the domestic game was decided, fans were left asking how the national sport had reached such a low ebb. The reasons are myriad, and depressingly, there is no silver bullet to pull the game out of its torpor. What is clear is that lancing one of the regions is more likely to weaken the game in Wales than strengthen it.
In the short term, by condensing quality, maybe standards will be raised, but over time, cutting the professional base by 25 per cent to less than 140 players, is likely to hit the depth chart like a torpedo, when Wales were only swimming in the shallow end in the first place when it comes to their player numbers, and who is to say three can’t become two in a few years time? It is a slippery slope.
More pressing is detatching the professional game from the amateur game which clings on to glories of yesteryear. A £90m-a-year business cannot be dictated to by a cabal of amateur clubs bent on maintaining the sepia-tinted status quo while the world around them moves on at warp speed. The support of former PRB board member, Amanda Blanc to Sunday Times’ rugby correspondent Stephen Jones’ assertions that the tail is wagging the dog, lends credence to simmering frustrations.
The fault lines in Welsh rugby are a chasm. That the regions do not know what their precise playing budgets will be for the 2022-23 season is deeply concerning and the £20m loan that has loaded the regions with interest repayments needs to be reappraised. Indeed, it feels like the regions, who are not blameless in their own mediocrity, are being hindered not helped in planning for a successful future. This swirling speculation over the state of the game in Wales has been allowed to run wild because the WRU’s top brass appear to be plugging their fingers in their ears and hoping the crisis will meander down the Taff, past the Principality Stadium, and out to sea out of earshot. It is foolhardy in the extreme.
The time for clandestine meetings and a lack of transparency has to be over. The paying rugby public who prop up the game deserve to know if there is a short, mid or long-term plan for the game in Wales before it is too late. This at a time when the WRU has seen a steady flow of big hitters depart the organisation.
Gareth Davies was a widely-respected rugby administrator yet his calls for reform saw him being removed for a 70-year-old former Geography teacher, Rob Butcher. Coupled with Chief Executive Martyn Phillips’ departure who has an unblemished record in big business, lending his wealth of experience to Premiership rugby as Chairman, the union decided to replace him with Steve Phillips, a WRU long-termer, who, while being respected for his financial acumen, does not appear to have the vision or media profile – a pre-requisite in 2022 – to lead Wales out of the quagmire.
Change is no longer an option. As custodians of the game, the WRU has to act.
Danny Wilson has talked long and loud about building a destructive side to the pretty Glasgow team he inherited. What he has right now is a group maddeningly intent on self-destruction.
On Saturday night in Lyon, again, they held a commanding lead and again, they tossed it away. From 27-13 up with 50 minutes gone, they shipped three unanswered tries and 22 unanswered points. Warriors fans have seen this movie before. The team’s inability to cope in second halves, their propensity to point the gun at their own foot and empty both barrels.
The Bulls outscored them 12-7 in the second 40 in Pretoria. Against Stormers, it was 19-0. At Kingston Park, a game Glasgow won, Newcastle managed 14 second-half points to Glasgow’s eight. In Cardiff, Glasgow led 21-7 at one stage, but a 17-7 second-half capitulation ended in a grim loss. In Llanelli, it was even worse, from 10-7 ahead they leaked 28 points without reply. There is a trend here, and it isn’t good.
Warriors have improved markedly this season, but then, you’d expect that with a smart coach in Wilson at the helm, and the badly needed recruitment drive they embarked on over the summer. Last term, Wilson had to coach with one hand behind his back, making do and mending with stopgap signings, loans and call-ups from lower down the Scottish system. Not so anymore. Fair enough, he is missing a clutch of front-liners right now, but that excuse carries only so much weight. For isn’t that what squads are for?
Whether down to fitness or mentality, skills failing under fatigue or discipline wilting under pressure, Glasgow’s second-half slumps are alarming. They will be in a URC play-off soon and never more than in play-off rugby does bottle come to the fore. Glasgow’s looks pretty frail.
Heartbreak and hope rhyme
The old cliché is there are no positives to take from a defeat. Except when you draw the biggest crowd of the weekend, when you mobilise an army of 40,000 fans to travel anywhere from two to five hours to watch you play, when you see a group of academy graduates put it up to the European champions, you realise it’s not just a glorious past Munster have but a bright future.
Imagine where they’ll be in five years-time when Josh Wycherley, Diarmuid Barron, Fineen Wycherley, Alex Kendellen, John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes, Ben Healy, Craig Casey and Jack Daly peak. They’re all very young and are already good operators. In time they’ll be very good.
So will Munster.
While it’s worrying that they continued their habit of losing big games, the reality is they’re getting closer. A penalty shoot-out is no way to conclude a game of rugby – but rules are rules. Munster missed three kicks during regulation time and you have to wonder would those have been slotted over by Joey Carbery and Ben Healy in the more familiar surrounds of Thomond Park.
That option was taken away from the players when the club agreed to host an Ed Sheeran concert, finances talking when that decision was made. It’s worth pointing out that you also make money from getting to a Champions Cup semi-final. Munster should be in one this weekend. They will be there again, though. This emerging crop of players will ensure that.