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FEATURE How the big boys of Europe pulverised England's Champions Cup hopefuls

How the big boys of Europe pulverised England's Champions Cup hopefuls
4 months ago

The chairman of World Rugby, Bill Beaumont, tells an interesting story of his first experience of playing for England against France back in the 1970s.

“I won the ball at the first lineout unchallenged and I thought to myself, ‘this might not be too bad after all’. At the second, I won the ball again – but by the time I had returned to earth, [Gerard] Cholley had spun me around, [Robert] Paparemborde was pinning my arms and [Michel] Palmie had taken the ball off me, like candy from a baby. They taught me all about international rugby. If they said it was Sunday, it was bloody Sunday’.”

It was a very bloody Sunday indeed for English clubs in the third round of the Investec Champions Cup. After soaring to the heights in the first two rounds with 12 wins out of a possible 16, the Premiership came back to terra firma with a chastening bump.

It was not so much the overall performance, with English clubs still winning a creditable four of the eight matches played, but rather the destruction of the past two Premiership champions Saracens and Leicester, at the hands of Union Bordeaux-Bègles and La Rochelle respectively.

The total score in those games was a massive 100-27. Add in Toulouse’s 47-19 away at the Stoop against the 2021 champions Harlequins in the previous round and it paints a worrying picture. Three English champions went down by an average margin of 34 points, conceding over seven tries per game in the process.

Uini Atonio
La Rochelle thumped Leicester at their Atlantic Coast stronghold to preserve their ambition to win the tournament three years running. (Photo by XAVIER LEOTY / AFP) (Photo by XAVIER LEOTY/AFP via Getty Images)

This was the round in which the big guns strode to centre stage, cleared their throats and announced themselves. The potential winners of the entire competition are relatively few indeed: La Rochelle, Toulouse, Leinster and Munster, with Bordeaux the likeliest of the new kids on the block. When they say it is Sunday, it is bloody Sunday.

It was not as if either Saracens or Leicester fielded weakened teams, or gave up the ghost before they even stepped out on the pitch. Both clubs were probably operating at around 75% of starting strength and arrived full of combative intent. But a sense of plugging the dyke against overwhelming tidal forces belied Leicester head coach Dan McKellar’s post-match repetition of the word ‘incredible’.

“They [La Rochelle] are an incredibly difficult team to beat if you let them get a roll [on], and we just gave them too many opportunities to use their power around our goal-line.

“They are obviously an incredibly difficult challenge, particularly at home and we didn’t do enough to stop their game.

“I certainly can’t fault our commitment to the jersey or our fight in that game and we’ll take a lot of lessons from that game.”

England centurion Ben Youngs added to a lingering residue of astonishment.

“The driving maul try they scored, that’s a hard thing to stop, and then Will Skelton! He’s like a cross between [7’4” professional wrestler] André the Giant and [Old Testament] Goliath, coming around the corner after a back-peel [from lineout]. That’s very hard to stop.”

The same happened to Harlequins in their round three encounter with Les Rouges et Noirs at the Stoop, in the shape of Toulousain leviathan Emmanuel Meafou. When you consider Meafou will probably be starting for the French national side at the 2024 Six Nations, and his likely opponents in white will be a Saracen [Maro Itoje] and a Tiger [Olly Chessum], it casts the club issue in an entirely different light. At around 115KG apiece, both will be giving away 30KG to the Franco-Australian giant.

Emmanuel Meafou is a burgeoning colossus for Toulouse and France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What is England’s loss may be Australia’s gain. Although Eddie Jones lost the tug-of-war over version 2.0 Meafou, the Wallabies still have the original model available for selection. Skelton was one of the few successes of the Jones era, not just as a player but as a leader, and the fledgling skipper of a chronically-undercooked Wallaby squad.

Whoever the new Australian head coach turns out to be, he will have an impressive power triangle at his disposal in the tight five forwards, with Skelton’s massive frame supporting 125KGo Angus Bell and 135KGTaniela Tupou at prop. Fill in the blanks with potentially, the Reds’ Josh Nasser at hooker and either Force veteran Izack Rodda or Brumby ace Nick Frost calling the lineout shots from lock, and there will be a substantial, physically imposing foundation upon which to build Wallaby hopes for 2024, and beyond.

Like it or not, the professional game as it is played at elite level is all about manufacturing entries to the red zone in the opposition 22, and squeezing out scores from positions close to the opponent’s goal line. The capacity to drive the ball from lineout, and stop the opposition’s attempts to do the same, are therefore central to success.

The Leicester driving lineout built by Steve Borthwick and refined further by McKellar is generally acknowledged to be of the top operations in the Premiership. Up until round 10, Tigers had scored 18 of their 31 tries from lineout, and 50% of those were converted within one or two phases.

The seminal moment for the Leicester lineout arrived between the 21st and 23rd minutes of the first half, with La Rochelle down to 14 men for 10 minutes. With Skelton’s second-row partner Ultane Dillane off the field on a yellow card, the big Aussie single-handedly brought the Tigers drive to a halt. With Dillane back on, he began to dismantle it.

 

Leicester’s specialty is to double-load behind the front seam of the receiver [Olly Chessum] and drive straight along the five-metre line, but in order to achieve that, the space between Chessum and his front blocker [Dan Cole] has to be watertight and admit no leaks at all. La Rochelle park their three biggest forwards [number three Uini Atonio, number four Dillane and number five Skelton] opposite that key area, and by the end of the play, the Aussie titan has split Chessum and Cole so far apart they might as well be at opposite ends of the earth.

Leicester’s next attempt at a drive was even more brusquely dismissed.

 

Teams always experience the most hurt when you can take away their super-strength and nullify it. After Skelton splits the block, Cole has been carried away as far off-task as one snapshot will allow.

When it was La Rochelle’s turn, Skelton was just as effective.

 

As soon as Skelton is able to turn north-south and lead the drive upfield, the game is up for the Tigers maul defence. Those mammoth paws are free to regrip ahead of the ball, taking half of the defending pack out of the game.

With the threat of the drive firmly established, Skelton was free to run at some smaller Leicester inside backs off the fringes.

It is not just the threat of Skelton’s power on the carry that is a problem, it is his ability to touch-pass to other big men running in concert. The ex-Waratah colossus is seldom spotted ball in hand without 140KG of Atonio outside him.

 

 

Skelton outsmarts Chessum and number six Mat Rogerson with a sympathetic pass to Atonio in the first clip, but he simply bulldozes the England man on the carry in the second. Atonio is a constant companion on his outside shoulder, and then Les Maritimes can introduce their third big ball-carrier, number eight Gregory Alldritt; building power on power, in a systematic, machine-like ramping up of momentum.

Skelton and Alldritt were also instrumental in the final build-up to La Rochelle’s third try just before half-time.

 

 

The positives have outweighed the negatives for English clubs at the group stage of the Champions Cup. As many as seven from the Premiership may still make it through to the knockout phase, two more than last season.

At the same time, the true giants of European rugby have begun to surface over and put some of the pretenders abruptly in their place.

The veil over the true state of affairs in European club rugby is being removed one layer at a time, and the usual suspects are being revealed: Munster and Leinster in Ireland; La Rochelle, Toulouse and maybe Bordeaux from the Top 14. England will find it hard, very hard, to bust that Franco-Irish monopoly, either at club level or by implication, in the Six Nations.

The tournament has also offered inadvertent hope to Australia on the other side of the world. Skelton is playing as well as ever, and he is one of the most dominant tight forwards in Europe. The Wallabies can create a passable impersonation of Les Bagnards and pick Skelton alongside Tupou – their very own Uini Atonio – with Bobby Valetini providing the green-and-gold version of Greg Alldritt. They just might make it a bloody Sunday for a more than a few opponents in 2024.

Comments

63 Comments
M
Mzilikazi 149 days ago

Thanks Nick. Skelton is possibly running into the best form of his career ? I say that without having seen a real lot of him during his time at Sarries. I watched in full the LAR v Pau game a couple of weeks ago, and Skelton was a significant presence . You may have seen it ? It was a tight game, till Teddy Thomas scored at the death…off a lovely pass from Latu. But the damage in the lead up was a brutal carry by Skelton on the other side of the field.

O
Otagoman II 149 days ago

Thanks NB. Australia does have the making of a good team if they pick smartly but there is something as you have pointed out about not coping with the opposition having a long stretch of ball. Will Australia rugby back Skelton to come out for the domestic season down south?

d
d 149 days ago

Thanks Nick. Seems obvious when you put it like this that big forwards are key in 2024. Will RA see this? Will they develop the big lock coming to the Tahs from France? And I wonder if there will be a clear division of locks from now on - the giant Skelton types and the athletic Frost types?

J
JD Kiwi 149 days ago

A Franco-Irish duopoly Nick😉 Yeah I know, nobody likes a pedant.

How do you think Schmidt will adapt his style to get the most out of Skelton, if he gets the job? And is Frost at 6 likely for the sake of the lineout?

j
john 149 days ago

If we get a smart Australian coach that is …..

B
BigMaul 150 days ago

Cheers Nick. Some interesting analysis. Though you do seem to cherry pick your fixtures to support your narrative - sure the last 2 champions of the English premiership lost at the weekend. But the current top 4 all won. Northampton and Quins by huge scores. Bath against a ‘big boy’ of Europe…

But moving on to your analysis. It’s not new, that premiership clubs can’t handle the sheer size and physicality of some of the bigger sides in Europe. Saracens were able to compete for a little while through their cheating. But that was just a smoke screen because they weren’t a legit side. Legit English sides haven’t been capable of competing in that physical way since the days of Martin Johnson. Which is why it seems pretty obvious England should change their strategy. Englands strategy is most akin to South Africa on the international stage but England simply don’t have the big monster forwards to pull it off. Jones flogged that horse for years and he had a little bit of success when Billy was in his prime and Robshaw and Haskell were both massive too. But since then, it’s been all down hill. England need to embrace a new identity.

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