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Has English rugby fallen behind?

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John Beattie | 13:09 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Scottish rugby can't compete at a European level, but has English rugby fallen behind?

It's a hot day in Glasgow. By that I mean the needle must be touching, oh, 15 degrees and that entices the entire population into wearing shorts and skirts and getting sunburnt. My skirt is a bit tight.

I'm tired after a long day at Melrose on Saturday and the best sevens tournament in the world. Hamilton won the Ladies' Cup. There were lots of people from Lanarkshire confused as to why they hadn't been invited, but this particular Hamilton is a rugby club from Cape Town and so named because a Scotsman founded the club.

Toulouse beat Stade Francais in the Heineken CupThe Hamilton in Lanarkshire is twinned with Bucharest and is similar but with marginally fewer gymnasts.

My daughter Julie met a few of the South Africans out at night and said they were "nice chaps". I told her to be very careful with any South African man who says he is "nice".

Afterwards, my band played the tent. It was a riot, a complete riot. This time neither Kelly Brown nor Chris Cusiter were with us, but here they are at Glasgow's mighty West End Festival.

So Sunday was a leisurely affair, watching rugby on TV. Was Toulouse v Stade Francais the best club rugby match of all time? Very possibly. And it's great that two Irish teams and two French teams are contesting the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, a magnificent trophy.

Two things struck me on Sunday.

The first is that English club rugby has fallen behind. I want English rugby to be strong, but English club stuff can be the dreariest of fare.

There is no point going into it, because you know what I mean. Scottish clubs just do not have the finances to compete yet play open rugby, but English club rugby is restricted when you compare the sheer beauty of some of the French action on offer. There was one pass by Cedric Heymans to Patricio Albacete that made me jump out of my chair.

Toulouse play rugby as if rugby is meant to be the most beautiful game on earth and I remember reading an autobiography written by Jean Pierre Rives who said that, sometimes, rugby is about "painting beautiful pictures". How Constable must be jealous.

And the second thing is the amount of attention players pay to each other's necks at ruck time. When a defending player is standing over the ball trying to pick it up, every attacking player in the world has been coached to grab him around the neck and twist him off it.

I don't want to sound like a sissy here, but that is plain dangerous and someone is going to get hurt. I don't think you should be allowed to grab someone around the neck and pull as hard as you can all in the name of clearing a ruck.

Anyway, out into the Scottish sunshine - complete with fleece. And, in defence of England, maybe that's the problem. English rugby might just need to ditch playing on tight football pitches and play in better weather.


  • Comment number 1.

    Oh look, another anti-English rugby post. You've clearly not been watching much of Saints, Bath, Gloucester and Wasps. Even Tigers are playing far more attractive rugby since the new breakdown interpretations are being put to use.

    How many tries did Edinburgh score in this year's Heineken Cup?

    How many tries have SCotland scored in the last 12 months? I'm sure you could count them on one hand.

    Why bring English rugby into a debate about Toulouse? Or Scotland?

  • Comment number 2.

    But Steve, compared to previous seasons, English clubs - given the vast resources available to them - have under-performed in Europe.


    How many pints did the camera man have? Never seen Kelly and Chris from a sideways view before!!

  • Comment number 3.


    This isn't anti-english at all. England has a vast number of resources available to them to improve rugby in this country and they dont use them. The teams are underperforming compaired to seasons past.They have vast numbers of players compaired to the likes of Scotland. France not so much but they play a far more beautiful game. The way English teams play is not in any form of the word beautiful. I have to say I am impressed with Scotland only having the two teams and making it so high in the magners, maybe if they start winning some silverware it will attract a whole new lot of people to the game up there.

  • Comment number 4.

    Steve - because when it comes to the top table of rugby, England should be there. Two million players. They should be there.

    Matt 74 - footage from a friend of Chris Cusiter's. A sideways look at life?

    Was down in London today, now back on that nice BA.


  • Comment number 5.

    #1 Steve,

    And I thought it was us Scots who were supposed to have chips on our shoulders!!! There is nothing whatsoever that is "anti-English" in this blog. I live in England and have watched Bath on a couple of ocassions this year and it has been awful. Lots of my rugby following mates down here would wholeheartedly agree with JB's view. English rugby is in poor condition at the moment and something has to be done to improve it. Of course you can ask the question about how many tries Edinburgh/Glasgow/Scotland have scored in the last couple of years but I think you are missing the point somewhat. There are more registered referees in England than players in Scotland!!

    what are your views on the "invitational" sides at Melrose? I was there last year and Uni of Johannesburg had one player who was head and shoulders above everybody else on show. Great to watch but it meant that there was only ever going to be one winner. They may bring a bit of glamour but would it not make it a bit more equitable if the "invitational" were of similar ability to Boroughmuir, WOS, Hawick, etc? Maybe top (non professional)club sides from Ireland, England and Wales could be invited?


  • Comment number 6.

    "Toulouse play rugby as if rugby is meant to be"

    What? Ping Pong rugby? Because for much of that match that's what was being played.

    Granted, the game did turn and there was a few nice pieces of play with Toulouse having the better of it, but the boring old punt up the park overshadowed the game completely.

    I was glad to see Mathieu Bastareaud shown up for what he really is, a big lump. Hit him low and hard and he'll go down. Why Scotland failed to do this I really don't know. But the simple good old fashioned tackle does the trick in these situations.

    But the best club game ever played? John, I think you need a wee lie down bud.

  • Comment number 7.

    Some teams from England- notably Saints and Tigers- have been playing very good rugby this term, and last season London Irish were really playing well.
    To say that English rugby has fallen behind is a real over reaction, as in recent years GP teams have dominated the Challenge cup, and have featured prominently in the HC too- with an all English affair in 2007.
    The real reason why some English teams are under performing in the HC is because of the tier system currently in place for the group stages- for example, had Leicester seen an easier group such as Stade's or Toulouse's, I would have liked to say that the form they are currently running with at the moment would be sufficient to pit them against the remaining teams and win.
    It is an unfair judgement to say ill of a league in which some Magners teams- Ospreys spring to mind- would find very difficult to perform in.
    I think English rugby has only fallen as far as the national side is concerned, with club rugby (particularly in the national leagues, although understandably they are played with less technical ability and without as much on the line) still thriving.

  • Comment number 8.

    "English club stuff can be the dreariest of fare"

    John, have you not been watching the GP in the last 3 weeks. Any neutral viewer would surely agree that there have been some really entertaining games on offer. The LV cup final (with 2 English teams playing) was one of the most entertaining games I've seen in years. Then you have Wasps vs. Glos, Saracens vs. Glos another fantastic couple of games.

    What's more, to say that English club rugby has 'fallen behind' simply on the basis of one year seems a little myopic. Okay, the international team may not be firing on all cylinders, but I'd remind you that France only had one team representing them in the HC knockout stages last year. Would you argue that they have fallen behind also? Leicester were pretty unfortunate not to qualify in my opinion, battling to a draw with the Ospreys when they had to resort to putting Craig Newby in at centre becuase of injury problems.

    Now, I'm not unrealistic, it's just that taking a conclusion from a single set of results is more than a little short sighted if you ask me. There was an English team in the final of the HC last year, if you remember.

  • Comment number 9.

    Peter Verdi - I was commentating on the Melrose sevens this year and it became an all South Africa final. Although the tournament in its own way was the best tournament for many years I think it is a real shame that local teams can't win it and there are times I question the value of invitational sides. Having said that it was a great final.


  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    Another typical anti-English club blog from the increasingly Celtic-biased BBC, a horrible leftard organisation who only want the club game in England to be Mungoball as all their interest focuses on the Magners league or RL.

    Same a the pap when they deliberately worked with the FA to have a soccer fixture on at the exact same time as ITV broadcast Englands opening fixture of the 2007 World cup. Then spent every waking hour on Radio 2 etc belittling rugby.

    They don't broadcast it, the don't want anybody to know about it, the put spin on to make everybody hate it.

    Idiot organisation full of idiot employees.

  • Comment number 12.

    I agree the GP is dire. Northampton are one of the few teams worth watching. Do you think the fact the Magners has no religation means that teams play more freely? It seems in the GP teams go out to not lose first and win second. This is understandable given the finacial implications of religation.

    It must also be worrying that Englands top talent is moving away more and more regularly.

  • Comment number 13.

    @101- ha ha! least you are showing you have a sense of humour.

  • Comment number 14.

    I think the term Guiness Premiership Club covers a broad spectrum of rugby.

    The top teams can be very, very good. Leicester and Wasps have won the HC multiple times. Wasps may be in a European final this year and Tigers only lost in the Heineken final last year. Saints and Exiles play a good brand of rugby and Gloucester, Bath should move into that bracket after difficult years.

    However, they play a different game to those at the bottom and watching games involving those clubs can be a tedious affair.

  • Comment number 15.

    Very bizarre comments when you consider the improvement made by the GP sides recently. Obviously you have not watched Saints, Bath, Wasps, etc this season, even Saracens have shaken off the shackles recently. These comments may have been ok 3 months ago but as they have been made now this smacks of a clear lack of research at best and an anti-english rant at worst. I fear it is the latter with an attack on english rugby justified by comparing it to scottish rugby.

  • Comment number 16.

    JB - "Two million players", umm so what? Are all these players premniership/international quality? No, so how can you bring numbers into it. When you boil it down I would doubt there are many more players at the top level than there are in other countries.

  • Comment number 17.

    Last season was shocking for the French clubs in the Heineken Cup for all the wrong reasons. The refereeing was truly biased and atrocious. Never before we had seen such a cabal against the French clubs. There was even an apparently well known English reporter, from The Guardian I believe to remember, who wrote a real diatribe against the lack of professionalism in the refereeing decisions made during last year's European tournament. He wrote at the time that the French clubs had been effectively robbed which says it all coming from an English journalist. Toulouse, Biarritz, Clermont and Perpignan all suffered from some pretty staggering decisions repeatedly and took it on the chin. But from a supporter point of view, it was hard to swallow really. This year, there have been the occasional mistake but overall the decisions were more balanced. About the GP clubs, I do believe they tend to over rely on their best international imports, take the likes of Dupuy, Mauger, Castrogiovani and Hamilton out of Leicester and it hurts. The big French clubs in spite of all the noise made about the Carter's transfer are actually managing their imports very wisely. Brive and Toulon may not have been the wisest of all but they have serious local youngsters coming on board (Brive was French champion under 20 y.o. last season) and they had to ensure their short term success in the competition this year by avoiding relegation. Only experience can buy that and Philippe Saint-Andre built a strong squad of internationals, now he will start building upon. (which still does not guarantee anything if you don't have a plan) The big French clubs that succeeds the best works with continuity. Stade Francais had the worst year ever with bad luck on all front, but they also broke continuity and maybe that's what created the situation at first place. Other big Top 14 clubs have not made tremendous changes among their players and staff, they add up wisely. Paul Goze (Perpignan) for instance indicated that they will not need to recruit with all guns blazing because they have the right people in place and it only needs the constant little tuning. In other words, we can change a panel from time to time, fit a better carburator and all but not remove the chassis or the entire engine block. If you look at Clermont or Toulouse, you can take out all their best international imports and still end up with a World class team. For one Byron Kelleher, there are two or three local scrum halves in the making, waiting for a call from Toulouse or another French club. But Noves and Cotter will not bring them if they are not ready. So the system actually works, and the LNR (league in charge of the Top 14) and DNACG (financial controller) also plays their role very well to ensure the clubs remain sustainable. The Top 14 with all its financial power will never become like the English Premier League in football. Producing players is still what matters most and if you can buy a Dan carter to make the sport more popular, then why not, as long as it is not a one trick pony. I might be wrong but I have the feeling that if you were to take their best foreign imports from Leicester Tigers, London Irish or Northampton Saints, they would end up in a situation maybe not as dramatic but very similar as the Sale Sharks this year. Recruiting foreign internationals is great for any club as long as it is finely tuned and balanced with local grown talents entrusted to become the leaders of tomorrow. It has to serve a long term strategy for the club. Maybe that is what missing in some GP clubs at the moment. Apart from that, Glasgow and Edinburgh keep on impressing me, they are getting better season after season, so they must be doing something right. And it shows on the Scottish team too. Understandably they are lacking depth but there are some very exciting prospect among the Scottish players. I will be curious to see how they perform against England during the World Cup pool stage.

  • Comment number 18.

    The relegation factor definitely plays a role in the type of games that clubs can more or less afford to play. When I look at the Super 14, it looks like free flowing rugby at his best, but it is almost like playing touch rugby on the beach which means it just as irrelevant contest-wise. In that "free flowing" spirit of the game, even the refereeing system is built to accommodate the players and not the rules. Therefore, the number of infringements is staggering but somehow encouraged by the officials: forward passes, off-sides, obstructions, tackles on players who do not carry the ball, wrong introduction in the scrum, "engage" the scrum when it should "pause", these are deliberate actions that we often see in the Super 14 but too often remain unpunished in order to keep the game running free. So is free flow rugby a good thing? Not always, not when it makes a joke out of the most basic rule of the game. This year in Super 14 we have seen many big scores, 65-45 sometimes but it was not exciting rugby, it was like an open door event with terribly poor defensive systems and referees on vacation, still most people loves it because there is nothing to understand. Go explain. For me a narrow 29-28 is better than a river score but only a real contested challenge allows that. Relegation would ensure that the Scarlets make the best effort to beat Munster, and the Lions make the best effort to beat the Crusaders which is rarely the case. In club vs club it is all about survival and clubs like Toulouse are living proof that free flowing rugby is well alive in club rugby. Now, I understand that it would be complicated for the Magners League to implement a relegation/promotion system. It would basically mean that some years, we would have no Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Italian provinces and clubs in the Heineken Cup. That would kill the rugby in those nations, so overall it is probably not feasible but if you cannot relegate and promote (New Zealand could) at least, expand the tournament and apply the rules. If the Guinness Premiership clubs have dropped the ball it is probably because they have relied too much on their imported players without ensuring much of a backup with the usual development program for young local players. No so strangely, it seems to be quite typical for most English institutions in sport to look at the short term results, rather than the long term vision for the club. The EGP pretty much follows the trend of their football counterpart the EPL and the situation at Sale Sharks certainly demonstrates my point. It is not a lesson for the EGP clubs only but for any club or province in Europe.

  • Comment number 19.

    Oh the old "most players" argument, change the record. Or don't ignore the fact that the nation with the most players has been in 3 out of 6 world cup finals, and apart from this year is regularly competing in the Heineken semis and beyond.

    West Country Wonder talks a lot of sense.

    This blog "article" could have been made months ago, when the quality of this year's GP WAS poor, but not in the last few weeks. Lack of research, rehashing the same old stereotypical and wrong views on English rugby. I didn't hear anyone calling English rugby dreary when the national team were running in tries from everywhere in the six Nations last year.

    If you want dreary, dire rugby, watch Scotland and/or Scottish backs in action.

  • Comment number 20.

    Dearie me, some of the responses to this blog are a tad touchy. There is nothing whatsoever that is anti-English but a fair few responses are anti-Scottish!

    As for the numbers argument. Of course they make a difference; when I started playing senior rugby in the early 90s it was in the heady days of the 1990 Grand Slam and Scotland's run to the WC Semi. My club were regularly fielding 5 teams on a Saturday. Nowadays the same club had to form a new club because their 3rd XV were struggling to get a game. The shrinking in numbers is a huge issue. There are far fewer registered players in Scotland nowadays and as a result there are fewer top quality players to choose from. I don't think anyone is saying that the 2m registered players in England are of premiership/international quality but it stands to reason that the more players you have to pick from the higher the standard. Why are our numbers so poor? A mixture of poor performance from Edinburgh/Glasgow and Scotland over the last 10 years. A successful team encourages fans to turn up and youngsters to take up the game, just look at Ireland/Munster abd Leinster. The other reason is the perennial problem of not enough state schools playing the game. Anyway, I digress!

    Fortunately, I have a good deal of English friends that are not quite so touchy when it comes to a critique of their rugby team as the contributors to this forum. If you want to be Ostrich like then fair enough but if you can't see that there are faults with the English system then you will not progress. Goodness knows we have had our problems to seek in Scotland over the last 15 years and while you may feel the rugby we play is "dreary" and "dire" I would suggest a watch of Scotland this season compared to last and you will see rugby that I am sure even the most stubborn of you would admit was less "dreary" and "dire"!!!!

  • Comment number 21.


    Say english club rugby is dire is a pretty wild accusation to make and thats why some of us have come to its defense, it it not based on anything, especially given the recent problems.

    For my part much of the anger regarding England comes from our coach allowing one of most exciting talents to line up against England this summer. Why is it that Saint Andre and the rest of the coaching world see the talent in Ciprianin and not Johnson. If Johnson and his predecessors actually named some decent teams instead of naming over the hill average players like Tim Payne I believe England would be in a better place and not struggling as they are now.

  • Comment number 22.

    @West Country Wonder

    Couldnt agree more about the Cipriani and Tim Payne comment. Not really sure what Johno is thinking there but the previous comment about the 2 million not making a difference is a bit of a wild call. Lets say only 5% of players can play to a good standard thats 100,000 players in England compared to only 1500 in Scotland. Now this isnt being anti english but with that player power they need to sort out the playing structure starting with something like only 4 overseas players in a squad allowing younger talented players to come through.

    @ 101

    The bbc do a hell of alot more for the GP teams than the magners teams. At least they show cup games between you guys and the welsh (cant remember the name of it.....and thats not being anti-English......or Welsh before someone says it) however i do agree with the comment about some of its employees such as Jonathon Davies and Andy Nicol during the 6 nations.

    To finish up the GP is a good enough league with a couple of good teams trying to play fast rugby but this season has been the worst i've seen during the last 6 years or so.

  • Comment number 23.

    @ fiskyb

    The BBC show NO English club teams on TV. Ever. They don't show the cup and never bothered with Premiership highlights even when they owned the license.

    However they always have a Magners league fixture or 3 on BBC 2 Wales and Scotland over a weekend.

  • Comment number 24.

    It isn't really the BBC's fault that they don't show much GP stuff, while I don't know how much they actually bid for GP contracts I'd imagine they get outbid by Sky easily.

    I think they'd definitely show matches if they did indeed have the contract. To be honest, coming from Scotland we don't often see Glasgow or Edinburgh matches on Scottish BBC channels, it's only when we play the Irish or Welsh teams and even then the games aren't on that much.

    It would be so much better for the Magners League to give its rights to Sky, I'd imagine the coverage would be far better.

  • Comment number 25.

    Ok, Ok but what about a high tackle on a low man?

    What about the fact that so many rugby players are grabbing each other around the neck at contact too? I wondered if that might be banned in rugby. It's interesting but we coach it at the club because that is what happens at the top level.

    Players arrive at the breakdown and a man is bent over the tackled player and with his hands on the ball. He can do that if he is first there and on his feet. So he is then taken off his feet and some people do it by twisting them.

    Methinks that's dangerous your honour and constitutes a high tackle.

    Sunny day in Glasgow, and would be sunnier if it were not for things in Iceland. Frozen chickens are much cheaper.


  • Comment number 26.

    Foxy808 - Until this season when ITV won the renewal, BBC owned the rights to show highlights of every Premiership fixture. However they completely ignored the regular season, except once or twice a year when they'd bother sending Moore and Butler along during a weeks break from the Six Nations and make a 2-minute-long "extended highlights" feature of whatever game Sky had already shown anyway.

    They had the rights to the cup but didn't bother to show any fixtures at all on numerous occasions (usually choosing athletics or horse racing instead), now Sky have them instead and provide 1000x a better service for any rugby fan.

    BBC sport has a reputation for killing sports off in this country. They managed to destroy the following of BTCC & World Superbikes - Both became massive in the UK when Eurosport broadcast them live, they have appalling coverage of Formula 1 compared to ITV, they couldn't care less about Rugby Union in England (unless there's a bias towards London, Wasps or Jonny Wilkinson) and they'll always change whatever schedule there is available to get in a mention for soccer.

    They also have the luxury of telling people that they're the friendly, loving organisation with no advertising etc. (think about the self-styles nickname of "Auntie"), yet they lit through their teeth when you remember the high percentage ownership they've got in channels like Dave, Gold, Blighty et al.

    A Horrible, 2 faced organisation.

  • Comment number 27.

    hi john . we must get more pro teams in scotland pronto .or there will soon be a lot of dissapointed players with no route to higher things .

  • Comment number 28.

    101 - I am really sorry but I can't say anything about bbc coverage.

    1415 - You have a really good point. In England there are premiership clubs which all need players, up here we have just two professional clubs and so our best youngsters don't get a chance to move on. At West, the club I leave this Saturday, we made it a policy to play the best youngsters we had and I think they have blossomed as a result. One angle, of course, is that from the SRU's point they only have a certain amount of money, and they spend it already - plus, it's good to have someone else paying some of your wage bill as they do with Jason White, Rory and Scott Lawson, Sean Lamont and others

    Just back from a very stressful photoshoot where I had to lift Jackie Bird into the air, by the bottom. Hardship.


  • Comment number 29.

    Is it just me or is it everytime this blog mentions English rugby it starts getting atrred with the all too easy "anti-english" brush.
    If anything it seemed that JB was getting a little frustrated at England not playing to their abilities. English team represent Northern Hemisphere rugby and so we need them playing well to shutup the Aussies, Safas and Kiwis.
    I feel that a problem with the current England team is that they are looking for someone else to blame, maybe all the anti-english banter on this blog is the real baddy and not Johnstones lack of imagination or appreciation for running rugby. The exclusuion of simpson daniel for so may years is a perfect example, let's hope they one day get Cipriani back.

  • Comment number 30.

    @101 - there are NO Magners games showed on BBC Scotland AT ALL! Get your facts right!

  • Comment number 31.

    hi john . unless you come from certain places in Scotland you get no chances to get up the ladder. a case of who you know and what family you come from it seems . .edinburgh especially.

  • Comment number 32.

    Up, lovely day, last coaching session at West last night, also did 100 miles on the motorbike yesterday afternoon where a van driver asked if I had a death wish as he tried to ram me. I told him he had if he kept going the way he was.

    Coconutjam - I think Iain Morrison had a story that BBC Alba is going to broadcast magners league games next year.

    1415 - Is that true? Don't the best players get identified at a young age and put, effectively, into rugby hothouses no matter where they are from?

  • Comment number 33.

    Hi John,

    What bike you riding?

    I don’t know if you think it’s a topic worthy of blogging but I would like to see some discussion about a suitable song for the supporters of Scottish Rugby to sing at club and international matches. I think a little vocal coordination will help teams in the short term with vocal support and in the long term with potentially larger attendances due to a better atmosphere and sense of unity etc.

    I am going with about 15 – 20 chaps to the Glasgow – Ulster game tonight and I think a little vocal coordination would help the team. Although some of the boys are Irish I am sure they wouldn’t mind a wee tune form a tone deaf bass player.

  • Comment number 34.

    So far John the only singing we have been doing is Campbeltown loch....

  • Comment number 35.

    hi john. .some players never get chances at edinburgh. management should go to SPECSAVERS.

  • Comment number 36.

    Mako_D - it's a yamaha tdm 900, big enough and comfortable enough. Songs for singing - I belong to Glasgow.....I do agree that Scottish crowds are quiet. It's all post 1978 and the football world cup, plus our identity as a nation. I don't think we are constitutionally a country but we are a nation, and that has maybe precluded us from having "country" songs for a long time.

    Souter - which players, I think most have had a chance

    Off to Firhill in a couple of hours


  • Comment number 37.

    hi john. RORY HUTTON .

  • Comment number 38.

    Ah, Souter, yes, he is a great player - made an amazing break against a team at Murrayfield. I agree, good player.

    Just back in from Glasgow game. Tale of two halves. First bad, second good.


  • Comment number 39.

    From teams posted in paper Rory Hutton hasn't played that much rugby since for heriots. Injury and 7s.
    Last Edinburgh match there were half a dozen guys with football style chants. Chunk and Visser's were fairly memorable.
    More power to their elbows, they should post them on the web so that less creative shouters can join in.

  • Comment number 40.

    Hi JB, A bit off topic this time but I just got back home after the Edinburgh-Dragons match. Not sure if it was on tv, but did you catch any of it? I don't know what positives I can say really but really wanted to say something! Defence was terrible, the Dragons danced through our team to find the gaps when Edinburgh have a host of internationalists but were made to look like amateurs. It got worse as the second half progressed, anyway I'm going to bed and pretend it was another bad dream in Wales.

  • Comment number 41.

    hi john. some Edinburgh players reputations and limited basic skills ruthlessly exposed. lack of cutting edge and leadership onfield . as ive said previously RORY HUTTON .on only Magners league chance given .ie.against .cardiff. .really impressed all watching .never given a chance to progress .very sad indeed.


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