European rugby up and running thanks to hot spring treatment

imageChanging of seasons helps Premiership provide the perfect balance of running and attritional rugby – as Gloucester and Leicester have shown Northampton got things rolling, literally, when the prop Alex Waller made the best of a perfectly timed delayed pass from Shane Geraghty to barrel his way over before Tim Molenaar went in untouched thanks to the space spotted by Gloucester’s fly‑half, Nicky Robinson. Two sidesteps and the centre was under the posts and something like 12 minutes later there was yet more Gloucester speed on show when their 21-year-old wing Charlie Sharples burst from the blocks to chase down a neat chip from the full-back on the night, Freddie Burns, who is more frequently a fly-half.

And all that was on top of the 41-41 draw at Leicester three days earlier. Eight tries in two games … Gloucester rugby was not meant to be like that. Nor for that matter was Leicester rugby. Think Welford Road or Kingsholm and titanic forward battles are more likely to come to mind but along with the spring has come a bout of refreshingly ambitious rugby. Why?

Well, the referees have to be applauded, particularly for the way they have been controlling the contact area. Tacklers who do not release after the tackle and who try to strip out the ball before they have released their opponent are now being penalised ruthlessly, so the breakdown has become more clear-cut and the ball recycled faster.

Quick ball means continuity and a flowing game but the change in emphasis has also altered the mind-set of defences at the breakdown. Fewer defenders are being committed directly to the breakdown, instead there has been a growth in counter rucking, one of those new-found skills which has come to show just how far ahead of the game the Lions coach, Ian McGeechan, tends to be.

When Sir Ian moved to Wasps six years ago, vigorous counter rucking was one of the areas of our game he improved. Now others have learned that instead of competing directly for the ball they are often better off clearing opposition players from the areas above and around the ball.

Another development to catch on is the Irish idea of using a couple of defenders to keep the tackled player off the ground while he is stripped of the ball – something we saw a lot of when England lost in Dublin during the Six Nations – and, while it is mostly perfectly legal, referees are going to have to be extremely harsh on those defenders who apply a headlock as they go after the ball.

But obviously the biggest improvement has come with the weather that arrived in time to help Dan Carter’s Crusaders beat the Sharks in the Super Rugby fixture switched from Canterbury to Twickenham last month and has hung around long enough to show that, given the conditions, there are a lot of Premier league clubs who can put on a show as well.

A quick look at the results since summer arrived early suggests that most clubs have benefited from the firmer ground and, while 41-41 is exceptional, there have been half-centuries racked up by three clubs and anything less than 30 points in a game is rare.

It has been refreshing and entertaining but whether I would agree with Bath’s outgoing head coach, Steve Meehan, in suggesting that it warrants a full-blown switch or even an experiment in playing rugby union in the summer is another matter. It is great that the conditions are as they are for the sharp end of the season when more or less everything is decided, but I am not sure I could stomach nine months undiluted.

Surely it is the diversity of the game in Europe which is a considerable part of its attraction. Much as I like to see the top-of-the-ground stuff in September and late spring I get just as much from the attritional days of January and February when the tight five forwards have the most to say. I like the idea of sides having to play the conditions; of having, in effect, two sides. Those for wet days and those for dry. I fear that a staple diet of chocolate cake would probably turn me off cakes for good.

However, I would be glad if the weather did not change yet. A sunny day for tomorrow’s game at Twickenham, when Wasps play Bath, hopefully in front of 50,000 and possibly 60,000 in aid of Help for Heroes, would do very nicely thank you.

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