So yesterday we finally found out who would be facing who in the European Challenge Cup and the Champions Cup, too.
It seemed only natural to take a look at the pools and make a couple of predictions at this, a very early stage in proceedings. The first thing that really struck me as different is that there was no blatantly obvious pool of death. I did, eventually, decide which pool I thought was the hardest, but this year it was harder to pick than usual.
POOL 1- Racing 92, Glasgow Warriors, Leicester Tigers, Munster
So I said it was tough, but this for me has to be the pool of death. Racing 92 French Champions and European Runners up this year, Glasgow Warriors Pro12 semi-finalists and one time Pro12 Champions, Leicester ten times Premiership Champions and two times European Champions and finally, the bottom seed being Munster the two times European Champions and four times Pro12 Champions. All of these sides (except perhaps Leicester) have a lots of recent history, with Racing conceding one of their two European defeats last year to Glasgow (Saracens were the other) and with Munster and Glasgow contesting some really tight fixtures over recent years, too.
Enough silverware there for you? Racing are certainly one of the form teams in Europe at the moment and should top the pool. Despite their impressive domestic form under Gregor Townsend, I can see Richard Cockerill’s new-look Leicester side using all of their experience to over come the Weegie Warriors. Despite always stepping it up in Europe, unless something radically changes, Munster could be in for another tough year in Europe.
Racing 92, Leicester Tigers, Glasgow Warriors, Munster.
POOL 2- Connacht, Wasps, Toulouse, Zebre.
A few years ago, this would appear to be an easier pool. I mean Connacht have always struggled, Wasps have only just regained Champions Cup status, Toulouse are obvious winners and why are Zebre even there?
Oh how things change. In their first final in their history, Connacht overcame three times European Champions and four times Pro12 Champions, Leinster, to claim their first ever significant title. Over in England, Wasps made it to the European quarter finals and the Premiership play-offs too and have since named a number of star names such as Danny Cipriani and Kurtley Beale.
Toulouse on the other hand, despite struggling more in recent years, are four times European Champions and according to Wikipedia have won the French title 64,000 times so will be a stern challenge. The final team, Zebre, have very little to their name, little more than a handful of wins and they seem all but doomed. They did very well in the Challenge Cup last year and were unlucky not to qualify from their pool, but sadly I still hold the opinion that the Italian sides would be better off in the Challenge Cup, for the benefit of themselves and the integrity of the competition, for the time being at least.
This is a really hard pool to call. Wasps have gained a number of stars, Connacht have lost them. Despite having a poor year in Europe you can also never write of Toulouse. In the end, I chose the form of the teams last season to call it safe, although this is a really open pool (the top three, at least)
Wasps, Connacht, Toulouse, Zebre
POOL 3- Saracens, Toulon, Scarlets, Sale Sharks
This is the other pool that people have mentioned as the pool as death as it contains two of European rugby’s over spenders power houses in Saracens and Toulon, both of whom have claimed European titles in the last few years. Scarlets have had a fairly poor Europe last year, going without a win. However, from next season their backline will boast the likes of Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell, so don’t write them off just yet- they should at least put up a good fight. Sale Sharks too have had another strong season in the Premiership and played well in last years Challenge Cup so will put up a battle.
This pool will be tough, but on current form and continuous tales of Mourad Boujellal making ridiculous comments about his team, who have in the last season had a serious drop in form, I see Sarries topping the pool, with Toulon in second. It’s then between the Scarlets and Sale Sharks. With so many Welsh internationals, I can see Scarlets just taking that one, although not by much.
Saracens, Toulon, Scarlets, Sale Sharks
POOL 4- Leinster, Montpellier, Northampton Saints, Castres.
This will be another tight one. Despite a drop in form in Europe and a final loss to regional rivals, Connacht, Leinster are developing some really exciting young talents, whilst still boasting some well seasoned internationals and therefore when they click, they could be a real force in the competition once more.
Montpellier had an impressive showing, winning the Challenge Cup in a tight affair against Harlequins and also managed to finish 3rd in the Top14, one place above eventual Champions, Racing 92. Northampton on the other hand didn’t make it out of their pool last year and didn’t reach the Premiership play-offs for the first time in a couple of years, but you can still never write them off. Finally Castres have seen a serious fall from grace since they were French champions a few years back, but managed to climb to sixth in the table last year in the Top14 and will be looking to put in a good showing in Europe this year.
This was a hard one to call, but I’m going to back Montpellier to top it, with Leinster and Northampton fighting it out for second and Castres being tough opposition, but ultimately coming in fourth place.
POOL 5- Exeter, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Bordeaux Begles.
What a pool this looks to be. Switch Ulster for Ospreys and this pool came right down to the wire last year. Exeter made their first premiership final last season and first European semi-final, Clermont always seem to get to the last hurdle before they fall, Ulster have had a very nifty back line with the very much on-form Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Stuart McInally and Jared Payne, whilst Bordeaux dug deep last year and despite not qualifying, still managed to make seventh spot in the Top14.
That is why this one is so hard to call. I love watching Ulster play, but I think they’ll only mange third place (please prove me wrong), with the experienced Clermont taking the top spot and Exeter Chiefs slotting in just below them in the table.
London Scottish and the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) have put their differences aside and rekindled their relationship it has been confirmed today. The main reason is thought to be for the good of their children.
At the start of the year the SRU took the executive decision to settle down and try and raise a family of their own, choosing to tie the knot with London Scottish (LS).
When citing reasons and official SRU spokesperson had this to say “We think London Scottish are the way forward really. Having explored all avenues, we feel like LS is the best place to rear our young. Richmond is a lovely community with lots of parks and play grounds for our next generation of Scottish players to take advantage of”
However, the relationship hit the rocks when SRU officials Google searched ‘Sean Lamont’, only to find his oiled up, naked body on display. This threw a phallic, Sean Lamont shaped spanner into the works and even caused the SRU to send a hitman onto fellow winger (unconfirmed) Tim Visser, who ‘sadly’ suffered a hamstring injury, giving Lamont a call up to the senior side, thus proving the SRU need not invest in ‘youth’ players. Although not drawing blood, the hamstring injury was enough for SRU and many thought that was the end of the short SRU/LS affair.
That was, until today when the SRU has ripped up the divorce papers (and hundreds of posters of Sean Lamont’s naked body) and re-ignited the love with London Scottish.
In unconfirmed reports it is said that over a candle lit dinner, the SRU and LS ironed out their differences and jumped back into bed together, but deciding this time to only have eight children, as opposed to the originally agreed fourteen.
We contacted LS for comment and they told us “We’re really glad the SRU chose us. Despite Sean Lamont initially convincing them that he would be good for another 200 caps, played anywhere on the pitch, the SRU finally came to their senses. Oh and sorry for making up lies about the SRU, everything is our fault, they are perfect and we aren’t. I was not told to say any of that by Mark Dodson”.
(No offence intended- It’s great to hear the SRU and LS have sorted things and love him or hate him, Sean Lamont is a true servant to Scottish Rugby and deserves all the credit he gets)
When the initial relationship broke down I wrote about the SRU, which you can read here.
The latest from ‘On Top Of The Moon’ takes a look into where the Scotland u20’s side stand, ahead of their crunch pool match with Italy u20, a side whom they defeated earlier in the year in the u20 Six Nations championship.
Italy are yet to register a win after falling short against both England and Australia so far. Scotland come into this one after a demoralising 44-0 defeat to England too, but having beaten Australia in the first round, I can see the Scots desire carrying them through this one.
For all the details, take a look at the blog post below and chip in on Twitter, or in the comments!
Saturday’s encounter with England may have been a disappointing one for Scotland but their match with Italy on Wednesday still gives them the opportunity to do something the national side’s u20s have never previously managed in this tournament’s history – win 2 matches in the pool stages.
Final round fixtures – Wednesday 15th June
3.15 Scotland v Italy (Pool B) – Manchester City Academy Stadium 3.15 Argentina v Japan (Pool C) – AJ Bell Stadium
5.30 Ireland v Georgia (Pool A) – Manchester City Academy Stadium 5.30 New Zealand v Wales (Pool A) – AJ Bell Stadium
7.45 South Africa v France (Pool C) – Manchester City Academy Stadium 7.45 England v Australia (Pool B) – AJ Bell Stadium
Based on projected wins for Scotland, Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and England the final overall standings will look something like this:
From a Scotland point of view that would mean a rematch with Australia with South Africa…
So as we come to the end of the club season, we still have a lot more rugby to get through. Whilst the World Rugby U20’s are taking place in Manchester at the moment, we also have the summer tours to look forward to.
Now of course we have all seen Sky Sports focussing on the only important International sides, England, Wales and Ireland… apparently there are some other international sides playing, but nobody really care about them, do they?
Well luckily for us, DrivingMaul has been doing his thing and has taken the time to bring us all some reviews of ALL the summer internationals. As it turns out, there’s quite a few to look forward to over the coming weeks.
If you like this kind of work, DrivingMaul is now trying to further enhance his already excellent coverage of Rugby on his blog and is looking for funding. Starting from as little as $1 a month, you can back him on his Patreon page.
With most domestic action either over or on hold for a month the rugby world’s eyes turn to international action. Here is my preview of the major tours and a quick look at some of the other international action taking place.
If we look at the Six Nations and each nation’s respective unions, I would say the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) have the hardest job with such problems in drawing fans to their ‘regions’. Many fans are turned away as after more than a decade of Pro rugby, many still don’t feel any affinity to a single region and the WRU have a job to keep peace.
However, with the revelation that the SRU want to move a War memorial to make way for a hotel on the BT Murrayfield site coming in the same week that they withdrew from a promising deal to develop youth players at London Scottish, the SRU has found itself under renewed scrutiny. Indeed, following the success of Glasgow Warrior’s, the U20’s in this years Six Nations and an improvement from the men’s’ and women’s’ XV in the Six Nations, topped off with a lucrative £20 million deal with BT signed in 2014, many felt that the SRU was finally getting into gear and moving Scottish Rugby forward. But how well does the SRU serve rugby union in Scotland?
THE BT DEAL
So I thought it’s best to start with the positives. One of the biggest steps forward in my opinion in recent years was the deal with telecommunication giants, BT, estimated to be worth around the £20 million mark. This has seen further investment in academies across Scotland and into the amateur leagues, helping to develop Scottish Rugby from the grass-roots and up. It also significantly cut (if not wrote off, I read somewhere) the SRU’s debt, meaning that if they can create an effective business plan, they may just be able to create another Pro side at some point in the future. This relies on either renewal by BT or a new investor in Scottish Rugby, as BT’s deal runs out in 2018. Nonetheless, as is all too obvious in professional sport, money and success are often proportionate, so this was a big step up.
The next big thing is the steadily improving results across the board. Despite not winning any games, the Scotland Woman’s side made improvements this year and a huge factor of this has to be the SRU appointing Shade Munro as head coach. Having Scotland caps himself and years of coaching experience at Glasgow Warriors has really helped the Woman’s side to step up this year.
The U20’s also put in an impressive shift, defeating their English counterparts and then, with stars missing at Bath and Edinburgh, Italy, whilst also recording a narrow defeat to eventual Champions Wales, leaving them in fourth position.
When you throw in Scotland’s senior side achieving their first win over the French in ten years and a win over Italy, Glasgow Warriors becoming the first ever Scottish Pro12 champions last season and Edinburgh rugby reaching the Challenge Cup final last year, results have been on the up. Of course, neither Edinburgh or Glasgow reached such heights this year, but with so much international disruption, it’s understandable.
Oh, and I think the Scotland 7s (who the SRU tried to disband last year) won something down at Twickenham a few weeks back? Probably just a misprint.
Now this is something that is often directly proportionate to results and it comes as no surprise that after winning the Pro12 title, Glasgow Warriors season passes once again increased last season (it will be interesting to see what happens this year)
If we add on top the record Guinness Pro12 final attendance of 34,550 (despite two Irish sides battling it out) and a record 1872 cup attendance (31,642 over two legs) it has been a good year for Scottish Rugby ticket sales.
Many Edinburgh rugby fans will also be glad to see that the SRU are attempting to permanently move Edinburgh to Myreside to try and improve the atmosphere for fans and to help drive the players forwards. It’s fair to say that three thousand people in a sixty-six thousand seat stadium is uninspiring at the best of times (hence why Edinburgh beat Glasgow twice there this season for the 1872 cup……) Edinburgh will play at Myreside for the second half of next season as a trial.
Of course, these are positives, but inevitably there are some negatives, some of which shouldn’t be too hard to address, others which are perhaps a bit more complex.
The first thing is perhaps a smaller issue and that is the Scottish Rugby store. If you look at most Rugby Clubs and Unions they have a plethora of merchandise for fans to enjoy, from mugs, key rings, baby clothing, pyjamas and the full ranges of training and playing kits. The SRU offer a novelty foam hand, mugs, hats, scarves and rugby kit, but not much beyond the basic. It is the same with the union owned Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh rugby. To top it all off, prices are very high. A Glasgow Warriors jersey at Murrayfield on the weekend of the Pro12 final was £80- I’m a fan but with kits changing so regularly, that price is simply too high. The SRU should be looking to get the brand out there, lower the prices, widen the range, there’s certainly a demand for it. How can ‘The Pen’ prepare ‘Josh the Bosh’ for his international debut without all of the gear whilst he’s young?!
This one is a little harder to address. Glasgow Warriors had multiple games at Scotstoun called off this season due to poor weather, causing fixtures to be moved. The main issue came for season ticket holders who couldn’t afford the extra expense of travel and who had already paid a full season price to see their boys play at Scotstoun. With the athletic club also using the venue and arguments over what should be done to accommodate both teams, replacing the surface is looking difficult, although there are discussions happening. The main error the SRU has made is with communication- moving Glasgow’s home leg of the 1872 cup to Edinburgh was communicated poorly and despite promising early signs, there has been little further news on an artificial pitch at Scotstoun. This leads onto my next and potentially biggest qualm with the SRU.
Anyone who knows rugby, knows that it is a game in which communication is vital. (See Dad, you weren’t an ENTIRELY useless coach) Therefore, you would probably expect the Union which manages rugby union in Scotland to be good at talking to its supporters but alas, you are wrong. Before I mentioned some examples of poor communication and it’s something people talk about a lot. When preparing this article, many wanted to know more about the future of Scotland 7s, if they will bid to bring the World Series back to Scotland, a reaction to key events like how the Pro sides went this year, the sevens win and the Six Nations. How about this promised third professional side? There have been many rumours over the years of a third professional side, but how close is it to reality? What are the SRU doing to get closer to that goal? Is there still a defect and if so, how big and how will they reduce it?
Andy Nicol on the SRU
and their lack of communication
Even ex-Scotland player Andy Nicol is fed up.
I’m sure I’ve missed some headlines to answer those questions, but if there’s one recurring theme from fans, it’s that they want real and meaningful communication with their Union.
A THIRD PRO SIDE
This is another one linked to communication. There has long been talks of a new Scottish pro side, perhaps reviving the Border Reivers or the Caledonian Reds. Yet the SRU seem to be entirely silent on the matter. In 2014 there looked to be hope, but that was soon dashed. Why don’t they tell people how close/likely it is to happen? Even the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) are making it publicly known they want to make a new side a reality in Italy. If the SRU are interested they should make it known, speak to investors and fans and try and get something sorted. The United States now have more professional teams than Scotland and it looks like Italy have plans to overtake on that front too.
In addition, for those who are currently season pass holders, either for Scotland or a club, where are the ‘perks’? As I understand there’s no real reward for loyalty, even for fans who have been behind sides for years. Glasgow Warriors did offer dinner vouchers to fans following the pitch flooding issues, but many felt that was insufficient.
The next big issue that many people have is where the SRU is investing money. About a year ago after the news that Glasgow would be dropped from the 7s circuit, the SRU planned to pull the 7s team altogether as it wasn’t worth the price. One year on and the Scottish 7s side, in their first ever final, won the London 7s. Many people want to know though, what are the SRU’s plans for the 7s? Will they be trying to bring a leg of the event back to Scotland once more and how long will they maintain the side for?
Another issue arises with ‘project’ players. Now players such as John Hardie and WP Nel have brought undoubted value to the ever improving Scotland team. However, with new World Rugby president Bill Beaumont vowing to tighten up laws on ‘project players’, shouldn’t the SRU be looking to invest more money into young Scottish talent? The table below shows that at present, any restrictions could hit Scotland hard as it’s clear that money is going on scouting foreign talents and bringing them into the national set up through residency.
It is worth considering that some players are Scots, who were born abroad such as John Barclay in Hong Kong, Tommy Seymour in the USA and Ryan Wilson in England.
MOVING A WAR MEMORIAL FOR A HOTEL
The following is open to debate. It has emerged this week that the SRU want to move a War memorial to make space for a Murrayfield Hotel. Of course, something like this always has a strong emotional draw for many people that has to be dealt with- indeed some people understandably aren’t happy with the idea. Many are also saying that this is a negative move as the money should be invested into the game, not a hotel. It also means that after nearly one-hundred years as tenants, Murrayfield Wanderers will have to move on when their lease is up. As much as I agree on those points in theory, the commercial value of a hotel would look to secure the financial viability of BT Murrayfield and the SRU in the coming years. It would also make events there easier for travelling fans and help prevent accommodation crisis’ when large scale events clash in the Scottish Capital.
THE LONDON SCOTTISH DEBACLE
I suspect this is why many of you are reading this article. This week it was announced that just four months into the deal, the SRU pulled out of a youth development link with English second tier side, London Scottish. In the original agreement the SRU would provide fourteen youth/senior players and some coaches to gain experience with the London Scottish (LS) senior players. The deal was later adapted, reducing the number to ten youth players and no senior players. Finally, the deal has fallen through and LS are left without any young Scots for next season nor coaches, causing them to postpone pre-season due to a lack of players. For a club like Scottish, it will be a very tough job trying to fill those spots to a good level for next season.
LS have released an angry statement condemning the SRU and piling the blame onto them. The SRU responded with a weak statement that, in essence was a cocktail of absolutely nothing, the faeces of a bull, finished off with slice of avoiding responsibility. Shaken, not stirred.
After reading all of that, you probably feel, like me, quite confused as to what exactly happened. I think the best information we have so far is from Alex Grove– who says that although the SRU have to take some blame for what happened, LS let a number of experienced players go and wanted to change facilities, something which was not in the deal agreed with the SRU. They also claimed that their ambition was not to get promoted to the premiership- perhaps why the SRU pulled its senior players out. Either way, London Scottish come out of this far the worse, having to delay pre-season due to lack of players and for that the SRU should truly be embarrassed. One thing is for certain though, this relationship had potential to be mutually beneficial. Instead, we are left with a situation in which both parties have lost out financially, in rugby terms and on dignity, too.
SCOTTISH RUGBY CHANGE
There is already a movement for Scottish Rugby Change, so I thought I’d get in touch to see what they had to say:
“We would like to see a change in personnel at the top and/or a change where the business side of the SRU is run by a completely separate board to the rugby and development side. Also we want to stop the project player policy and divert all funds to youth projects. Obviously we would also like a 3rd and then 4th pro team which should be achievable if Glasgow and Edinburgh are close to self sufficient. There must be a queue of people willing to run Glasgow at least and if they aren’t self sufficient by now then the SRU aren’t as business savvy as they think. Additionally districts or Pro A teams in the B&I cup is a no brainer and should happen. The list goes on but that is the gist of it. Change at the top so we get people who are experienced in sports development and leave the businessmen to business. Currently they are completely naïve in their views of growing the sport and are too arrogant to realise they are not succeeding”
Strong words, but it’s true that there’s a lot that can be done better than at present. Scotland Rugby Change are on Twitter, so if you like what they’re about, give them a follow!
Whilst a lot of good steps have been made, the SRU still makes some questionable decisions. One thing that is clear, communication needs to improve. Fans need to feel involved and appreciated. One basic way they could do this is by setting out a public set of goals like Connacht have recently for example. How is the SRU performing financially? What are their goals for the year and for further ahead and how realistic are they? How will they inspire the next generation and grow the sport?
If there are any issues you feel have been left out or anything you disagree with, feel free to comment or tweet me- I’m up for discussion, I just want to see the SRU moving the sport forwards.
A look at the ‘Pointless’ England VS Wales game at the weekend. Many claimed it to be a cash cow for the Unions, which was perhaps correct in part.
Despite wide spread claims that it was irrelevant and that people wouldn’t care about the result, I would imagine that many Welsh Rugby fans can’t help but feel bitterly disappointed to have their almost full strength side downed five tries to one against an experimental English side.
What did you think of the game? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!
So, what points can we take from the ‘pointless game’? England were rubbish, then good, against a Welsh side that were poor. It wasn’t a thriller. And yet, we scored 5 tries. Odd. Still, from an England perspective, there was a lot to digest from the inaugural Old Mutual Wealth Cup (which despite ‘Old’ being placed in its title is very much new, nice try) ahead of the tour down to ‘straya.
While this was an undoubted good result, and would have been much more emphatic if Ford had kicked his goals, we don’t think it will change much ahead of the selection for the test sides on tour. Solid debuts and performances from squad players who came into the team, namely Mullan, Yarde, Watson, and Launchbury especially, were positive. However, it has raised discussions over two key areas, the back row and the midfield, with the others looking pretty…