Spectator sport

How to breathe life back into European rugby

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

French rugby has always been well stocked with boeuf but now it has added lashings of exceptionally tangy moutarde and the whole dish is mighty tasty — as evidenced by their brilliant first try against Ireland at the weekend. Covid scares permitting, the team are the stars of this Six Nations — and annoyingly good-looking too. The next World Cup is in France and will be the most glamorous World Cup ever. It might also be an opportunity to get some of your francs on the host nation, at appetising odds of around 6-1.

The French defence, discipline and game management is pretty flawless: take a bow Shaun Edwards, who England have inexplicably failed to sign over a number of years. The way the French closed out the game at the end with a resurgent Irish on the charge was hugely impressive. The set-piece is solid and the midfield is fluent, incisive and fast. It’s a pity fullback Brice Dulin doesn’t have an English granny: he’d do a better job than Elliot Daly, who is missing tackles and doesn’t seem to have the spirit for the job any more. In flanker and skipper Charles Ollivon and the elusive scrum half Antoine Dupont, the French have two of the outstanding players of the tournament.

England might have beaten Italy but it was like the under-16s taking on the school First XV. The pace at which all the other big teams play compared with England is troubling. Eddie Jones should take much of the blame but the English midfield, led by Owen Farrell, seems incapable of upping the tempo.

Wales, blessed with the outstanding winger of the Six Nations, have played more than 90 minutes against 14 men but are still only six points to the good — and could have lost both matches, to Ireland and to Scotland. There’s nothing quite like a trip to see rugby in Rome but surely, sadly, Italy have to go, at least down to a second division where they can play similar teams and learn to win again.

So here’s a plan to restructure European rugby. Start with three five-team divisions: a Championship of England, France, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. A challenger division would include Italy, Spain, Georgia, Romania and Portugal. The third league would be Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Russia and the Netherlands. One up, one down each season. It would put the fear of God into the top division, so it will never happen. That’s why rugby won’t grow, but putting on a wax jacket and getting wasted in Lisbon or Tbilisi is probably just as much fun as in Cardiff.

There has been the traditional chorus of former Test captains bitching about the pitch in Chennai where England have just been hammered by more than 300 runs. But it was the same pitch where Rohit made a brilliant 161, Ashwin, a bowler, hit a rapid century, and India scored more than 600 runs in their two innings. So it couldn’t have been quite that bad. And over here, the same people belly-aching about Chennai are massive fans of a green top in Chester-le-Street on a chilly May morning when Sri Lanka or Bangladesh are in town.

India came back from a crushing defeat in the first Test, but will the law of bounce-back work for us? I have my doubts. Let’s just hope England win the two tosses and bat long, and that our spinners stop bowling full bungers (oh Swanny, what England would give to have you back there).

And on that note, how sad to see Moeen Ali returning to England. It has been hard for him — all that time in isolation with Covid — but England needs him too, with his eight wickets in this match after more than a year out of Test cricket. Maybe Chris Silverwood, who has done a doughty job as England coach, could have put his arm round Mo and persuaded him to stay.

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