Wednesday 18 July 2018

Semi-finals provide a glimpse into England's rugby revolution

The form of Manu Tuilagi (left) has put Leicester in a good place to make a sixth European final Photo. PA Wire
The form of Manu Tuilagi (left) has put Leicester in a good place to make a sixth European final Photo. PA Wire

Eddie Butler

It's not exactly Brexit. It's the opposite really, more an Anglicisation of Europe. And this takeover comes with a makeover, for it offers contrasting shades of new England. There is variety in the approaches of Wasps, Saracens and Leicester. If there is a constant, it is only that they are all part of England's joyous rugby revolution since the World Cup fiasco.

Racing 92 of Paris complete the quartet of Champions Cup semi-finalists. They offer a contrast of their own, being anything but typical representatives of the Top 14. To be a Parisian club is to be viewed with nothing short of grave suspicion by the dozen of that 14 that lie in the southern half of France, and with envy by their neighbours in the capital, Stade Français, as they go about the competitive business of tapping into Paris' not altogether steadfast passion for rugby.

What makes Racing 92 a threat at Nottingham's City Ground next Sunday is that they are well accustomed to playing in a hostile environment, even in their own land. And in Dan Carter, they have a player who is immune to the pressures of playing anywhere. The great No 10 finished the quarter-final against Toulon limping on a "tweaked knee," as he called it, and having handed the kicking duties - not without the scare of a miss in front of the posts - to Maxime Machenaud.

It seems he is very keen to play against Leicester. It's not clear if Freddie Burns and Owen Williams are quite so keen to play against him, but they should be. It is a treat to pit yourself against one of the best of all time - and no less of a treat for us to watch him perhaps for the last time on these shores.

Even if there is this Carter factor, Leicester are in a good place to make it to their sixth European final. They hammered Stade Français and even if Racing are much more resilient than the eccentric but reigning champions of the Top 14, Leicester seem to be on one of those late-season surges, once beloved of Wasps.

Manu Tuilagi is playing again, obviously delighted to be able to take out his frustrations of the past year - groins can do that to the best - on an opponent or seven. His precise position in the England team remains undetermined, but for the moment with Leicester, he is at 12, alongside the very influential Australian in exile, Peter Betham.

It is one of three combinations in midfield that help explain why England is suddenly the place to be for adventure. Elliot Daly, vying for a place of his own in the England team, and Siale Piutau are the most daring. At Wasps, they are consistently fed by Jimmy Gopperth at 10 and, on the one occasion against Exeter , by the efforts of Thomas Young, who stole a turnover on his own goal line, a theft and delivery to Daly that turned defeat spellbindingly into victory.

Young, incidentally, has suddenly become the talk of the hour, and not just for being, like Harry Mallinder, George Ford and Owen Farrell, the son of a coach - of David in his case. Young Jr is a seven, a couple of rows back from the specialist position occupied by his father, but he can also play across the rest of the back-row. He is a Welsh player in England, the mirror of Sam Underhill, an Englishman at the Ospreys in Wales. The art of the seven seemed to have been buried, but suddenly it is back, all part of Europe's rugby resurrection.

It helps, obviously, if the chaser has something to chase. Even Saracens, so long considered to be a little light on colour in attack, have added width to their game. Brad Barritt, never knowingly described as creative in an England shirt, is a vital part of his club's quest for excellence - and prizes. Saracens tend not to glide, but their wrap-arounds, involving Farrell, Barritt and one of the players of the season, Duncan Taylor, are an effective way to evade a blitzing defence.

Saracens were far from their efficient best to begin with against Northampton in the quarter-final , but they did what they always do well - stick together - and ran out winners. But Wasps will not be as afflicted by injury as Northampton were, and if their start against Exeter was anything to go by, will punish any Saracens sluggishness more tellingly.

Form in the last round favours Wasps, but does it not often happen that a game so wondrous is impossible to recreate? That the opposite happens and players on fire one week cannot be as hot the next? Equally, is it not often the case that a side who labour through to the next round may use that very scare to be much improved? Saracens will be telling themselves it is so. Either way, from Wasps-Saracens at the Madejski in Reading on Saturday to Leicester-Racing and Dan Carter's valedictory Sunday, this promises to be a feast.


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