After the disappointment of the World Cup, English rugby has bounced back quickly with some very encouraging performances in Europe.
Four of the five Champions Cup pools are topped by English clubs going into the double-headers over the next two weekends and Eddie Jones will have plenty to catch his attention as he considers his first England squad announcement in the new year.
It is great that so many young English players are in form but the Premiership is now also home to some top-class overseas talent which is showing its worth. It has proved challenging for English clubs in the past to challenge in Europe because the homegrown talent is spread so widely – though Saracens may yet be the side to prove me wrong – and it need not be to the detriment of the English players to bring overseas names in. In fact the right ones can help to create the confidence and the platform for them to perform.
To get the balance right in Europe you need shrewd foreign signings and Dai Young at Wasps has probably captured the best of the summer in George Smith and Charlie Piatau. Wasps have been unbelievable in Europe. They have been the surprise package of the tournament by comfortably beating Toulon and Leinster, who have won five of the past six Champions and Heineken Cups between them.
The signing of Piatau and Frank Halai’s return from injury have been central to Wasps’ performances in those big European games. They are probably their two most dangerous players, but equally important has been the confidence they have given to the young English backs around them. The likes of Christian Wade, Elliot Daly and Joe Simpson have been in superb form and Piatau and Halai have been a big influence. It is a classic example of how the right overseas players can invigorate and enthuse good English players.
The Australian Smith was another really shrewd overseas signing for Wasps. Against Toulon he took Steffon Armitage out of the defensive equation. He has brought great balance to the back row and really complements James Haskell and Nathan Hughes at European level.
Not unsurprisingly Wasps’ form has lulled post-Europe and last Saturday they were comprehensively beaten by Exeter when they looked susceptible to forward power and the driving maul. Yet they coped fine with Toulon, who are no weaklings up front themselves. Perhaps it was a post-Europe hangover – we’ll see on Sunday if they have shaken it off.
Exeter have generally resisted the temptation to look to big-name overseas players. They had the Australia forward Dean Mumm but he left in the summer and was replaced by the England second row Geoff Parling and the flanker Julian Salvi, who has an Australian passport but rugby-wise is almost English, having played at Bath and Leicester since 2009.
They are in vibrant domestic form but their loss against Ospreys in a Champions Cup game they should have won illustrated a lack of European nous. The next two ties will show whether they have the composure for high-end European action. It will be interesting to observe whether Rob Baxter looks overseas to complete the jigsaw.
The big challenge is to thread the high-profile overseas signings into the team. They don’t have to be young, as Smith in particular shows, but can bring much more than simply their playing ability to the club. I spoke to Wasps’ defence coach, Brad Davis, at the London double-header at Twickenham last month and he said that Piatau exudes confidence and people like Daly and Wade soak that up.
Toby Faletau may well have a similar effect at Bath next season and Northampton are expecting great things when Louis Picamoles joins in the summer. The Saints, though, could find themselves on the wrong end of an inspirational foreign signing on Saturday. It is difficult to imagine a better addition to this season’s Champions Cup than the World Cup-winning fly-half Dan Carter at Racing 92, who is expected to make his debut against Northampton.
French teams have traditionally been able to attract world-class talent that has been out of English clubs’ reach thanks to the Premiership’s salary cap, but future increases have now allowed the clubs to sign some of the biggest names around. These investments, though, have to show a return in terms of success in Europe.
High-quality additions should bring high-quality play and no one would argue, for example, that Leicester signing the Wallabies back Matt Toomua for next season will not improve their attack. Toomua will be an outstanding signing and if he can inspire the likes of Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi and Freddie Burns – who have all agreed new contracts since Toomua’s signing was announced – Eddie Jones will have reason to be very grateful for his compatriot’s influence.
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