NEW YORK, NY – A busy week in the European rugby world; Warren Gatland picked only two Scots in his Lions squad, Eddie Jones picked 15 uncapped players in his England squad to tour Argentina and there was the excitement of semifinals in European competition. All in all there’s plenty to talk about!
Let’s start with the Lions.
As with any squad announcement, there were surprise inclusions such as Ross Moriarty and Jared Payne, and surprise omissions such as Joe Launchbury, who was desperately unfortunate to miss out after an outstanding Six Nations. Many eyebrows have been raised over the selection of 12 Welshman in contrast to 11 Irishmen and only two Scots given Wales finished below both Ireland and Scotland in the Six Nations, and although the Welsh bias does concern me, the balance of the squad is easily explained by the makeup of the coaching staff. Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend and Scotland attack coach Jason O’Halloran both turned down positions on Gatland’s staff for the tour, leaving no coach with a Scottish association present in the selection meetings. In a pressure cooker environment like the Lions, coaches tend to gravitate to the known rather than the unknown, so with no voice to vouch for the likes of Hamish Watson or Finn Russell when the tight 50/50 decisions were being made, it should not be a surprise that the Scottish contingent is so small.
Continuing the theme of familiarity, Gatland has picked more Welsh players than one might have expected given their Six Nations results; he has put his trust in players he knows well and have delivered for him in the past, despite questionable recent form. My problem with this is that history tells us form plays a large part in Lions tour success. In 2012 Wales won the Six Nations grand slam and in 2013 they won the tournament again, earning their dominance of the 2013 Lions touring squad which went on to be victorious in Australia. Contrast this with England’s dominance of the 2005 Lions squad after finishing fourth in the Six Nations that year, and it’s no surprise that side was soundly beaten 3-0 in New Zealand. Further analysis supports this correlation so, while I understand Gatland’s natural bias to pick players familiar to him, I do worry that this could work against the Lions on this tour.
The day after the Lions squad was announced, England coach Eddie Jones put forward his selection for the summer tour of Argentina. With 15 uncapped players in the group of 31, Jones is clearly treating this tour as an opportunity to examine how some of England’s most promising youngsters react to senior international rugby, while surrounding them with just enough seasoned veterans to provide mentor-ship and guidance. Jones has always said that his plan with England is to constantly be building towards winning the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Phase one of that plan was to return England to winning ways by playing a more confrontational style of rugby, which Jones achieved with victories in his first 17 matches, collecting two Six Nations championships and a series whitewash of Australia away from home. Jones knows that some of the players who have featured in this rebirth of England on the international scene will be past their best by 2019, so his focus is shifting to developing the younger generation, with two years to build them into established internationals. Jones is under no pressure on this tour; the Lions will be the main focus for rugby fans this summer and he has built up enough credibility for the outcome of this tour to be largely inconsequential to his long-term position, giving him the freedom to experiment and to encourage his young charges to express themselves.
Last weekend’s Champions Cup served up two pulsating semifinals, with Saracens putting Munster to the sword 26-10 in Dublin while Clermont survived a Leinster comeback to win 27-25 in Lyon. Facing a Munster team which has drawn inspiration from the tragic passing of coach and former player Anthony Foley last October, Saracens were on the back foot for much of the first half before their trademark suffocating defense began to stifle Munster after the break, allowing the men from north London to impose themselves on the game and come away with the win. The result means Saracens have now equaled the tournament record of 17 consecutive games unbeaten, and they seem to be finding their best form at the business end of the season for both domestic and European competition.
Huge kudos must also go to Munster for the character they have displayed since Foley’s death shook the province to its core; the spirit within the squad and the bond among the players has been palpable and resulted in a side which was greater than the sum of its individual parts. Their efforts this season would have made Foley proud.
In Lyon, Clermont shot out to an early 15-0 lead before Leinster began their comeback through the boot of fly half Jonny Sexton and a sublime solo try from Gary Ringrose, but penalties from Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez, along with two Lopez drop goals secured victory for the French side, setting up a mouthwatering final against Saracens in Edinburgh on 13th May.
The Challenge Cup semifinals were just as gripping, with Gloucester handing Top 14 leaders La Rochelle their first home defeat of the season, prevailing 16-14 with fly half Billy Burns scoring all the points for the English side.
Meanwhile in Paris, Bath lost to Stade Francais in dramatic fashion as George Ford missed an 82nd minute penalty to level the scores after a Jules Plisson drop goal had put the home side 28-25 ahead in the final minute of normal time.
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