England centre Brad Barritt says that Saracens will use their European Champions Cup semi-final heartache as “a galvanising force” during the domestic season run-in.
Seven days after bowing out of Europe following a gripping clash against French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne in Saint-Etienne, Saracens head to Milton Keynes today for an appointment with long-time Premiership leaders Northampton at stadium:mk.
Victory for Saints would confirm qualification for next month’s title play-offs, but Saracens can move to within striking distance of Northampton if they claim only a second win from the last six Premiership starts against their fierce rivals.
“This group is extremely ambitious,” said Barritt, who signed a new long-term contract with Saracens earlier this week. “And we have used last weekend’s disappointment as a galvanising force for the rest of the season.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) April 24, 2015
“There is obviously a Premiership title to play for, and it starts this Saturday against Northampton, who are formidable opponents. We relish the challenge, and we are looking to bounce back after last Saturday’s result.”
Meanwhile, Leicester, one place and three points outside the playoff zone, could climb back into the top four if they claim an expected five-point maximum against hapless Welford Road visitors London Welsh today.
And seventh-placed Sale Sharks can afford no slip-ups against AJ Bell Stadium visitors Harlequins if they want to keep the heat on topsix rivals Wasps.
Elsewhere today, Gloucester host Newcastle, while tomorrow’s Premiership action sees a key clash between Wasps and Exeter.
Australia fly-half Quade Cooper has signed a two-year contract to play for Top 14 champions Toulon.
Capped 52 times by the Wallabies, the 27-year-old Cooper will join his new teammates during the summer to prepare for the 2015-16 season.
In particular he will link up with former Australia playmaker Matt Giteau, who has been instrumental in guiding the French club to this season’s European Champions Cup final.
— Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 24, 2015
The wealthy Cote d’Azur side are currently seeking a second straight Top 14 and European Cup double.
“He has been a player we have been keeping an eye on for several years now, and would have arguably been rated the best player in the world after the last World Cup were it not for injury,” said Toulon chairman Mourad Boudjellal.
“At 27-years-old, he is coming to Toulon to become the player that the whole world wants to see.”
Cooper is currently playing for the Queensland Reds, but he broke a shoulder blade earlier this month and will be out of action for up to two months.
Earlier this week, the Australian Rugby Union announced a major change to its Test squad selection policy five months before the World Cup, opening the door to foreign-based players being selected.
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) April 24, 2015
He becomes the latest Australia international to announce they are moving abroad after this year’s World Cup, following establised Test players like Will Genia, James Horwill and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Meanwhile, Top 14 leading duo Toulon and Clermont return to domestic duties today with one eye on their European Champions Cup final on May 2.
Leaders Toulon and second-placed Clermont play La Rochelle and Castres respectively, but face the dilemma of choosing between much needed points to secure a semi-final play-off spot and the desire to rest players.
“Obviously, we are thinking about next week,” admitted Clermont lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, who is one of the 12 players who will be given a break.
Elsewhere, second-bottom Bayonne, who have won just once in their last four games, host Grenoble today desperately looking for a win to preserve their hopes of Top 14 rugby next season.
Fellow strugglers Lyon, sitting at the bottom of the table seven points behind Bayonne, face Bordeaux-Begles.
Meanwhile, Montpellier head to Brive looking for a win to boost their chances of competing in the play-offs while Racing Metro, fourth, go head-to-head with sixth-ranked Oyonnax.
England should scrap their “old-fashioned” policy of refusing to select overseas-based players, according to World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward.
The man behind England’s 2003 World Cup triumph said Australia had “seen sense” after officials on Wednesday announced a relaxation of rules that currently prevent foreign-based players from representing the Wallabies.
The Australian Rugby Union’s (ARU) change in policy has paved the way for the likes of Toulon pair Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to be called up for the September-October World Cup in England.
However, there appears to be no softening in the stance of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), whose policy is to select only players from England’s Premiership clubs for Test duty, save in “exceptional circumstances”.
But Woodward said current England coach Stuart Lancaster should not have such a restriction placed upon him.
Australia rugby bosses change rules for international eligibility. James Horwill could play for @QuinsRugbyUnion and Australia next season
— James Pratt TV/Sport (@JamesPrattTV) April 22, 2015
“Stuart Lancaster must be free to pick his best players, no matter where they ply their trade,” Woodward wrote in his column for Britain’s Daily Mail on Thursday.
“It’s wrong to say England are best served by players at English clubs.”
Woodward cited the in-form Toulon pair of Steffon Armitage, the reigning European Player of the Year, and Clermont full-back Nick Abendanon as two players who ought to be considered for England’s World Cup squad.
“Jonny Wilkinson moved to France and became even better than when he played for England, so that completes the argument for me,” Woodward said. “Would I have picked Jonny if he was playing in France? Of course I would.”
Woodward, himself a former England and British and Irish Lions centre, said the last thing England, needed was to be left thinking of what might have been.
WELL! Giteau back for the Wallabies… World Cup Group of Death just got a little bit more Grim Reaper-ish.
— Tom Hamilton (@tomESPNscrum) April 22, 2015
“When it comes to a home World Cup, you don’t want to be left talking about ‘what ifs’,” he said.
But there are many within English rugby who back the RFU’s stance, arguing that without it, many players would opt for lucrative club contracts in France, where salary cap restrictions are not as stringent.
Dai Young, coach of Premiership side Wasps, said the situation in his native Wales — where players such as Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny have left regional sides to join French clubs while continuing to play Test rugby — should serve as a warning to England.
Young said the current situation meant the Welsh club game had to contend with falling crowds, while at Test level there was a loss of control over the fitness of top players.
“To me England’s stance is absolutely right and they should stick to it, otherwise you will see the quality of the Premiership dwindle,” former Wales hooker Young told the BBC.
The ARU announced its new policy in response to a host of top players taking up lucrative club contracts due to begin after this year’s World Cup.
But world champions New Zealand said they had no plans to change rules meaning only home-based players are eligible for the All Blacks.
“The core policy is ‘if you’re not here, you don’t play for us’ and we think that’s been a very important part of our player-retention strategy,” New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew said on Thursday.
“There’s no immediate thought of changing that,” he added, in an interview with New Zealand’s Radio Sport.
England have been drawn in the same World Cup pool as Australia and Wales.
One of the rugby heavyweights will bow out at the first-round stage as only the top two teams from each of the four pools will qualify for the quarter-finals.