Rom ance took a back seat last weekend as the reality of Premiership power flexed its considerable muscle. Nowhere more so than at Bristol where Gloucester took their 100 per cent record and helped themselves to a bonus point in the process.
Turnover and counter attack were Gloucester's chief weapons with Jamie Forrester revelling on the firm surface. Elsewhere the prop forwards were having a field day and two in particular deserve mention.
On Friday night Andrew Sheridan battered London Irish in the tight and carried formidably in the loose. He appears destined for the England team sooner rather than later. Tony Windo, at 36, has probably been bypassed by Test match rugby but he has never enjoyed his club rugby more.
He scored the crucial try to beat Saracens at Sixways and was again part of a strong Worcester scrum. The West Midlands team have notched up two penalty tries from scrums and Windo already has a couple of his own. He is having a heck of a time.
This is fascinating because in his younger days, Windo was always a good player but never the destroyer he has become today. Either John Brain is doing a miraculous job at Worcester, or the scrum remains less a force in the Premiership than many would have us believe.
I do not want to denigrate Brain or Windo, both of whom are doing outstanding jobs, but you have to wonder. Julian White is regarded as the most fearsome of English technicians in the tight yet New Zealand forwards were not troubled and he and his Leicester colleagues, including Graham Rowntree, always have a torrid time when they face French opposition; men who unquestionably regard the scrum as something sacred.
Sale, marshalled by Phillipe Saint-Andre, are picking up the quality of their tight game while Worcester, guided by a former Gloucester lock, are remaining true to old Kingsholm traditions. In the process they are picking their way up the table. Some may find their style boring but the set piece is a vital part of the game and executed well is a thing to behold. Let us hope that Worcester are leading a scrum renaissance for the sake of the game's variety.
Now to this week's questions...
ROBBO'S RAGEStuart, So, Andy Robinson is the RFU's man to defend the World Cup. Based on what? England's rugby last year was tired and tactically terrible, but I wouldn't mind betting we'll see forwards and backs getting in each others' way again this season, with an out-of-form Jason Robinson hitting rucks and Steve Thompson still missing cows' backsides with an extra-large banjo. It's been obvious to all since the 2004 6 Nations that the England team needs better skills, better tactics, and maybe some fresher faces than Will Greenwood and Matt Dawson to win again. But not apparently obvious to the RFU. What's your view of Robbo as England coach, good bloke though he may be? Jon Jones.
STUART SAYS: Jon, that is pretty strident stuff. On the evidence of England's efforts since the World Cup, there is little with which I can disagree but the issue is not so much Robinson the coach as Robinson the selector and head man.
Andy Robinson is a fine coach; He was head coach in all but name when England won the World Cup. Unfortunately neither Clive Woodward nor he has much moved England since.
He has made a series of bad selection errors (not as bad as Woodward since November 22nd but not great either) and the team has meandered along playing a downgraded version of the rugby that took them to the top, but a few comments in his defence.
The World Cup side was at a physical and mental peak and had great players like Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and a fit Jonny Wilkinson. Robinson does not. That makes life a lot different, however the persistence with numerous out of form players has been Robinson's mistake.
The last two years have been pretty much wasted and from now on scrutiny will be intense. I must admit, I am surprised that he has not freshened up his general staff...again, there seems almost excessive loyalty to the old regime. If the All Blacks maintain their 4-5 tries a game record against an England defence coached by Phil Larder, questions are going to be asked.
If Robinson is to remind the world what a good coach he is, the first thing he must do is get the best men alongside him, on the field and the training grounds. That is where the questions most need answering.
FAST-TRACKING THE SPEEDSTER
Pat Howard says Tom Varndell is ready to play for England. I can't help but think it is a little premature. His try-scoring record is outstanding, sure, but does he not need to bed down in the Leicester side and prove himself as a consistent performer? Recently his tries have come from interceptions and finishing off good moves. Whilst that is one of the major roles of a winger, I'm not sure he brings a lot else to the party, other than pace. On Saturday David Bory looked much more an international player than Varndell, who still looks a little green. Definitely one for the future, but give him some time rather than throwing him against the All Blacks. What do you think Stuart?Norman Adams, Leicester.
STUART SAYS: Norman, I would not write off the thoughts of an old shrewdie like Pat. In England we tend to be conservative and take our time but Australia chucked the likes of Joe Roff and Matt Giteau into Test rugby as teenagers and they have done fairly well as a result. Against that, he is vying with Mark Cueto, Josh Lewsey and Jason Robinson for a Test berth. Right now I think he is a shade short of the class to oust them but I would make sure he is drafted quickly into the Elite squad with a possible mind to a game against Samoa in November if he maintains his form and potential.
VAN THE MAN
I enjoyed Will Greenwood's piece on Mark van Gisbergen last week on the Rugby Club. Whilst all of us at Wasps know he is good enough to play for England this year, how do you see him fitting in to the current back three? Greg, Marlow.
STUART SAYS: Greg, If you are a Sunday Times reader (sorry about the plug), you will know my thoughts. I reckon he should be full back and goal kicker, allowing Charlie Hodgson to run the attack without the burden of kicking stress. The Sale man is an outstanding points maker who may improve with a phlegmatic points scorer to ease the pressure.
THE CENTRAL LINEStuart, What's your take on the RFU trying to get central contracts in place? I think they are about 10 years too late. The idea itself is a good one, as proved by the likes of New Zealand and Australia, and also our cricket team. The problem as I see it is that the clubs won't go for it, maybe with some large financial compensation but I doubt it. I think the better solution would be to stop the league during international windows; this would help teams who lose a large section of their first team, and thereby maybe see some good will come back from the clubs about time off etc.Matt Davies, Epsom.
STUART SAYS: Matt, You obviously do not read the Sunday Times either! I wrote on this subject a fortnight ago. I side with the clubs. Centralise contracts and you turn domestic rugby into a feeding pool for England. This side may well struggle in France 2007. Who is then to sustain the groundswell of support for the game when the bandwagon patriots jump to a different sporting ship. The RFU should have signed the best players when the game went professional. Instead they buried their head in the sand and allowed others to take the risks. If you were one of these 'others' would you happily hand your interests over now? I, for one, am glad at the way the game went in England. The English club game, like the French, may often infuriate but it has soul and plenty of it.
Thanks for the interest, as ever, keep it coming and have a great week, Stuart Barnes.