The Saracens embark on the hunt for trophies
Changing brews in Newcastle?
After a decade as Newcastle Falcons supremo, Dean Richards is pondering a change in role, a move from his seat of power as director of rugby to a seat on the board. Richards said last week he was discussing his future with club owner Semore Kurdi.
It looks like a pivotal time for Newcastle. Their season, which started so brilliantly, is now slowly heading towards its endgame. Friday night’s heavy loss to London Irish was their seventh Premiership home game without a win. They haven’t won a league game at Kingston Park since October, a staggering statistic considering how stronghold Newcastle have prevailed.
The team crumbled under the weight of injuries, particularly in midfield and at the back. But they suffered more from an alarming lack of cohesion, a mountain of errors and sometimes a strange inability to land blows in attack. Over the past two weeks, against Glasgow in the Challenge Cup and the Irish in the league, their set piece, of such traditional strength, has also creaked.
“Inconvenient” was the assessment of Will Welch, their faithful captain, on Friday. Welch played over 200 games for Newcastle and was their youngest skipper when he first took on the role.
The Falcons’ master plan has long been to develop, blood and build teams around the Welches, Callum Chicks and Trevor Davisons, local guys from a talent-laden catchment area. Around 20 Newcastle men won England recognition in the summer and autumn, with Adam Radwan and Jamie Blamire at the forefront.
Even with a reduced salary cap, the Falcons cannot and, in some cases, will not match the spending of their rivals. The loss of Will Haydon-Wood, a 21-year-old flyhalf who has looked at home as a top-flight starter this season, is significant. If Newcastle need a key addition, it’s at 10. Haydon-Wood left for Wasps, who were ready to offer a serious pay rise. Louis Schreuder, Newcastle’s first scrum-half, has signed for Bath. Tian Schoeman will be their playmaker next season.
At the moment, the 11th is a fair enough reflection of Newcastle’s campaign. By sinking Exeter in Devon for the first time, stunning Wasps with 14 men, winning handsomely at The Rec, claiming a thriller in Biarritz and pushing heavy opponents all the way, they showed what they can do with diligence and determination and something approaching a full line-up. On many other occasions, errors and inaccuracies have been their infuriating downfall. The coming months will be exciting.
Take the URC by storm
They slipped away without anyone noticing. When February started, with more than half of the regular season games played, only one South African team was in the play-offs in the URC, and that team, the Sharks, sat in eighth place with just two points.
The narrative then was that they would be teams to watch next season, the kind of condescending and short-sighted comments that we Europeans should have had the good sense to avoid. To be fair, Johann van Graan, the Munster manager who spent a decade working with the Bulls, is the one who predicted the future. “Wait till you go to Ellis Park, Kings Park, Cape Town, Loftus Versfeld. Even the Great Crusader sides lost there. You don’t just show up in South Africa and win,” van Graan said ahead of his club’s trip south.
Twenty-four games later, he was right. Of these matches between South African and European teams on African soil, 22 ended in victory for the home team. At least half a dozen could have gone the other way, but second-half capitulations became a theme. The South Africans know how to play the conditions; a number of Irish//Welsh and Italian teams find that if you can’t handle the heat you get out of the play-off places.
After Saturday’s results, the Stormers moved into second, the coveted position that guarantees home advantage in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. The Sharks are fourth, the Bulls eighth. Only four points separate the second from the eighth.
It is not inconceivable to imagine a former heavyweight Pro14, Ulster or Munster, losing to one of these teams in the play-offs. In fact, it’s happened before (four times) this season and will most likely happen again if they don’t get their act together and sneak into the top two or, at the very least, the top four.
Whether they do or not, one thing is clear. The four South African franchises have changed the URC for the better. And it’s not next season that we can expect a major impact from them. It’s already arrived.
Ulster at a crossroads
Six days after losing their Champions Cup draw with Toulouse, Ulster were back at Ravenhill on Friday with battered bodies and weary minds. And it happened. Their tank was empty, defeat inevitable once Keith Earls crossed for a second Munster try midway through the first half.
The problem is that they have to start again this weekend, their fourth game in a row to win absolutely, and as we now know only teams like Leinster, Racing, Toulouse, have the team to deal with this kind of intensity.
This means that Dan McFarland’s team is at a crossroads once again. Since becoming their head coach in 2018, they have undoubtedly improved as a team, with a vibrant youth program offering skillful alternatives to the journeymen occupying their roster.
But they also developed a history of collapsing down the stretch. They should have beaten Leinster in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Champions Cup but lost their temper. Within a month, Glasgow put 50 points on them in the Pro14 semi-finals.
On 2019/20, the year of the pandemic. They pulled off a remarkable comeback win against Edinburgh in the Pro14 semi-finals and then failed to keep up the pace against Leinster a week later in the Aviva. Mentally exhausted, Toulouse overpowered them a few weeks later in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Last season brought a similar story. They had another first-half lead over Leinster in a must-win game……and another defeat, followed by another European collapse, this time against Leicester. We won’t even mention their subsequent performances in the Rainbow Cup.
Now let’s move on to this season. They’ve lost four of their last five games, they have a trophy to play for and unless they beat Edinburgh this weekend, then the Sharks in their last regular season game, have no chance of winning. a semi-final at home in the competition, and a reduced chance of even being able to organize a match in the quarters.
To a certain extent they have been unhappy, with the list of games, with injuries and with some refereeing decisions, but there comes a point in the evolution of any side, in fact any coach, where you learn to stay calm in the most stressful situations. moments. This is where Ulster is right now. Their next two games are vital in deciding how this season plays out because if there is still a chance they can win a URC title by winning away in the quarters, halves and finals of the competition, frankly no one thinks that they I will. To earn the trust of the neutral, he must first win a trophy.
Webb refuses to go dark
For so long a cause celebre for the 60-cap rule, Rhys Webb was shunned by Welsh management for ill-judged remarks about not wanting to hold bags of gear and preferring to spend time with his family during the pandemic.
Whatever the private conversations between Webb and Wayne Pivac, if they have conversed, the tanned scrum-half hasn’t sniffed the Welsh squad for 18 months, with Pivac accurately saying he has faster scrum-halves with better service. To the untrained eye this season, however, they would say Rhys Webb has always been in the top three scrum-half in Welsh rugby, faring favorably over Gareth Davies and Kieran Hardy. Indeed, Webb has consistently delivered for the Ospreys, showing leadership when called upon, and against Cardiff he actually outplayed Tomos Williams, who himself has been in fine form of late.
Granted, the 33-year-old had a better platform, with the Ospreys pack dominating, but he didn’t seem to need a zimmer frame to gallop 50m to get under the sticks after an interception and he showed repeatedly his awareness of the game, game management and sleight of hand to put carriers in space or sniper around the fringes. In conclusion, he looks like a man who could still play at Test level and he is even younger than Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Jonathan Davies.
One man who has no doubts he’s still got what it takes is his trainer, Toby Booth, who has no doubts he’s still in Test class, but if, as expected, Webb is left out of the inner circle for the tour of South Africa and beyond, many will feel that Webb’s naturalness has not been realized. Thirty-eight caps seems modest for a player with his talents and he may one day regret his decision to go to Toulon, but whatever your view, he deserves another conversation.
Thompson’s turmoil needs to be heard
It was horrible to read Steve Thompson’s interview on Saturday’s show Daily Mail as the former England hooker has confessed to having suicidal thoughts as he battles the onset of dementia praecox.
Every rugby fan, in fact every rugby player, should view this article as a form of education. So when the next red card for a reckless challenge comes early in a game, like Charlie Ewels’ second-minute dismissal for England against Ireland, we don’t need to hear about ruined games. These are lives that are ruined by concussions related to rugby. Thompson has to deal with the consequences of this.
The least we can do is learn from experience and avoid having the same story told by a different actor in 10 or 20 years.