WHEN I was playing for Bath, dashing billionaire owner Bruce Craig was very keen on a total restructuring of the northern hemisphere season. Domestic leagues would be played in an unbroken stretch (though I think he was good enough to allow a window or two for international rugby in his proposed schedule) and, once that was all decided, the Champions and Challenge Cup would kick in. So, a simpler structure for players, administrators and supporters to get their heads round, and in theory one that would place fewer demands on each club’s resources. Being a simple, routine-loving type, I was with him on the former rationale, and you only have to look at Glasgow Warriors’ situation this week to see the truth in the latter.
For the (completely disorganised) player, this time of year can get a bit discombobulating, but on the other hand those two week European windows certainly spike your enthusiasm levels, and just as Scottish winter starts to kick in too. A change is as good as a week in Dubai. And then, to really get your attention, there is the challenge of dealing with (switching to Sky Sports epic film voice/unhinged Scott Quinnell jibber-jabber for this) “a massive step up in INTENSITY!”
But is there actually much difference on the intense-ometer between the various domestic leagues and European rugby? Well, the answer is … it depends. Back in days of yore when I played in the old Magners League, and even before that the Welsh Scottish thingy, it was fairly cut and dried. From playing Dunvant or Ebbw Vale one week to Toulouse or Biarritz the next, there wasn’t much room for doubt about where the big games in the fixture list lay. And the truth is, through much of the noughties we were, as they say, playing at it: going up against those behemoths with next to no solid foundation of proper professional training or matchplay. When you did come up against a Wasps or a Leicester you realised they were from a different rugby galaxy, and though there were occasional wins, they were either through sheer fluke or because the opposition were lulled into apathy by the febrile surroundings of Meadowbank, Hughenden or a three percent full Murrayfield.
Glasgow, and let’s hope increasingly Edinburgh, have finally worked out how a professional club goes about its business. Fair enough, they are aided by the increased competitiveness of the PRO14 (even the Irish give at least half a damn nowadays), but regardless of the level of opposition, you can tell just by one glance at the teams that there is a consistency to how they approach their working week, a solid, incremental approach to improvement and progression. (OK, admittedly there is a little more evidence of this over in the west, but I’m a born again optimist when it comes to Edinburgh).
As such, Glasgow won’t be going into this weekend praying that they can somehow compete with the English Champions, as we did in my day. Panic stations! No, they’ve built that base over many seasons now; done the disgustingly hard work in the gym and on the training field, won the big matches by design rather than divine intervention, and I’m sure their approach to European games will be the same as in any other match week; rigorous, measured and methodical.
But still, it’s Europe, say the press, the commentators and much of the rugby public. What about all that extra INTENSITY? Surely merely chanting the word “Europe” in training lets teams access hitherto untapped strata of intense-ness? Alternatively, you could look at it logically, on a case by case basis. Is playing hit and miss Racing 92 going to be a tougher game for Munster than last week’s derby against Leinster? Probably not. Whereas for Glasgow, hard fought as their brilliant win over the Cheetahs was, you’d have to say that going down to Devon to play the Chiefs is an even tougher task.
Though only just. The truth is, in 2017 any and every game of professional rugby is just really, really hard. It’s horrible out there. The horribleness (and the good stuff like speed, power, skill…) increases year on year, but even when I finished up my career in Bath in 2013, I don’t remember there being a marked increase in my Sunday morning agonies on European as opposed to Premiership weekends. France was a little different, as when I was over there from 2007 till 2010 the league was still propped up by five or six pub teams, whereas now the standard of even the Top 14 is universally high (thank you, southern hemisphere).
So, Europe is not necessarily more intense, but it definitely poses unique challenges each week. As Glasgow found out last week in South Africa, countries and leagues produce, by osmosis, particular traits amongst their own teams. Glasgow managed to get to grips with and match the Cheetah’s high-speed, high-risk Super Rugby style. This week they will have to deal with Exeter supreme ability to retain ball, go through hunners of phases and play for territory. All very Premiership.
You get used to how teams play in your own league. It was interesting, when playing for Stade Francais against Bath we were all taken aback by their Anglo-style levels of organisation, conditioning and physicality. It was a shock to the system after the paunches, shambolic lineouts and ad hoc gameplans of the Top 14. Conversely, when playing for Bath AGAINST various French sides, we were always disconcerted by the lack of obvious structure, their brilliant individualism and just their overall odd way of playing rugby.
It may just be little things, such as the way a Frenchman runs into contact, or the stinkiness of an Irish team’s on-field banter, that take a few moments to adjust to. Or it may be slightly more memorable differences, such as the increased likelihood of getting a finger in the eye or, indeed, spat on. Ask Peter Stringer; when playing alongside him at Bath I was surprised to see a globule of Jerome Fillon’s gallic gochle landing plum on Stringer’s immaculate pate.
I’m not sure that’s quite what Stuart Barnes means when he bangs on about intensity.
- Click here to read: Countdown to Europe: Warriors must raise their game again, says Rennie
- Click here to read: Countdown to Europe: Cockerill makes nine changes to his Edinburgh side