As the dust settles on Saracens’ European Cup victory, focus switches back to the Premiership and the UAE’s upcoming tour to Uzbekistan.
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SARACENS ARE BUILDING A DYNASTY
After displaying an unparalleled amount of focus to win all nine of their matches in the European Cup, it comes as little surprise that Saracens are already back in training for their Premiership semi-final with Leicester Tigers.
Most teams would be forgiven for indulging a little longer in such an achievement, but for Saracens a plateau in their performance is strictly off the menu.
The Londoners are hoping to learn from Toulon’s mistakes, who claimed a solitary Top 14 triumph during a run of three-consecutive European Cup wins (including two losses in the final).
With a network of feeder clubs spanning the globe, significant financial backing, a roster of home-grown stars and a consistent level of performance at the top level, Saracens are club rugby’s new superpower.
In many ways this group could be considered a European hybrid. Mark McCall’s men combine the wealth and glamour of French rugby, the attacking flair of the Irish provinces and the resolute defence and strong set piece that is indicative of English club rugby.
Ten-time champions Leicester are a rejuvenated team with Manu Tuilangi back in midfield, but while Saracens look this fresh and hungry, it is hard not to see the European Champions take this one.
MCCALL JUMPS AHEAD OF O’SHEA IN RACE FOR IRELAND JOB
With Joe Schmidt seemingly in a three-horse race with Warren Gatland and Wayne Smith to become Steve Hanson’s All Blacks successor, the queue has already started forming for the Ireland role.
Conor O’Shea cut his coaching teeth in England’s Premiership and with sixteen years experience under his belt (including an impressive victory with Harlequins) it looked as if the Italy-bound coach was in the driving seat.
However Quins have regressed slightly over the past three seasons and his team’s resounding loss in the Challenge Cup final on Friday, coupled to Saracens’ thumping win in main competition has put another Irishman in Mark McCall firmly in the frame.
The IRFU typically like to employ a coach that has been in charge of one of the Irish provincial teams and McCall, having coached Ireland ‘A’ and Ulster, has another advantage over O’Shea.
Only time will tell whether O’Shea’s move to sinking ship Italy over an Irish province was a good decision, but one guarantee is that Ireland will not lack for strong alternatives once Schmidt moves on.
FORD DISMISSAL HIGHILGHTS LEAGUE DEBATE ONCE MORE
After failing to build upon last season’s Premiership final appearance, Bath have wielded the axe and coach Mike Ford is the man left to shoulder the blame for 2016’s disappointing eighth-place finish.
This ‘mutual parting’ brings back into focus the question over whether league coaches can successfully lead union teams.
It is understandable that Ford has had some success as specialist defence coach with Saracens and England as the principles behind defending in both sports are identical.
Thank you to the Bath Family for your unbelievable support disappointed I couldn't take the next step with you!— Mike Ford (@Mike7Ford) May 17, 2016
But a head coach is responsible for developing his team’s strategy and game plan across all areas of play, which is almost an impossible task for anyone that has not played that sport at a very high level. While Ford was undoubtedly successful last year, perhaps it is this lack of union experience that meant Bath were unable to keep evolving.
Eddie Jones moved very quickly to remove Andy Farrell from the England coaching set up for similar reasons and perhaps it is time for union chiefs to install experts from within and stop gambling with league converts.
HART TO ADD VALUABLE EXPERIENCE TO UAE NATIONAL TEAM
Paul Hart may be approaching 40 but his selection for Apollo Perelini’s UAE team competing in the Asia Rugby Championship this week proves there’s still plenty of life left in the old dog yet.
However, the Jebel Ali Dragons forward is feeling fresh and fit as the UAE look to gain promotion to the ARC’s Division I, and has brushed off any suggestions this could be his swansong.
“I’m still really enjoying it, I’m still being selected for the UAE and Dragons, so there’s no reason to quit. Until someone younger and better comes along and knocks me off I’ll continue,” said Hart.
Ahead of Wednesday’s Division II semi-final encounter with Uzbekistan, Hart feels former dual code international Perelini has selected a good balance of youth and experience.
“Myself and Ed Lewsey are the two old boys. I think we’ve got to offer the younger lads,” added Hart.
“There’s very much a business-like feel to this tour. Everyone’s delighted to be selected, but we’ve all decided as a squad the hard work starts now and we’re committed to winning this division and being promoted.
With a place in the Olympics at stake it comes as little surprise that this year’s World Sevens Series has been the most thrilling yet. Nowhere is this better exemplified than at last weekend’s Paris Sevens where Canada’s Adam Zaruba pulled off one of the finest pieces of skill you will ever see on a rugby pitch.
Montpellier, fired by a brace of tries from Australian full-back Jesse Mogg, sealed the first ever trophy in their history after beating Harlequins last night to lift the European Challenge Cup.
The result ensured there was no fairytale ending to Conor O’Shea’s reign at Quins, the Irishman now moving on to coach Italy.
Nick Evans got the scoreboard ticking over with an early penalty after a ruck infringement, with Montpellier’s Demetri Catrakilis responding almost immediately.
In a cagey opening period, Quins took the game to Montpellier but the French side, coached by Jake White, suddenly sprang into action with a fabulous try.
South African lock Paul Willemse broke a tackle and drove into midfield before being brought down. The ball was recycled quickly and the ever-alert Frans Steyn spotted a rush defence and unleashed a huge pass to Mogg, just on the pitch for injured Benjamin Fall, on the wing. Mogg swapped passes with Anthony Tuitavake to cross for a try in the corner that Catrakilis converted.
With alarm bells ringing that the match might be running away from Quins, Evans scored two penalties. Montpellier’s Fijian winger Timoci Nagusa had a try disallowed early in the second period but the Top 14 side got their due rewards after several minutes of pressure.
Montpellier too strong and too efficient plus they've got Bismark du Plessis. Easiest MOM decision of the season— Brendan gallagher (@gallagherbren) May 13, 2016
Replacement scrum-half Benoit Paillauge chipped to the corner for Mogg, who out-jumped Wales centre Jamie Roberts to cleanly take the ball and touch down for his second.
Harlequins’ Dutch-born Scotland winger Tim Visser fluffed a similar chip from Mike Brown at the other end of the pitch at Lyon’s Grand Stade to sum up their lack of attacking edge.
Catrakilis continued his kicking masterclass with a fourth penalty before Marland Yarde did well to scoop up a delicate Mike Brown grubber kick and cross the whitewash for a try converted by Ben Botica, who also nailed a penalty to set up a nerve-racking final five minutes.
But it all turned out to be too late as Montpellier held on.
Having decided to take on two high-profile and demanding roles while most opt for retirement aged 66, it seems pertinent to ask Wayne Bennett just why. What more is there to achieve for someone who has done, and won, it all in rugby league?
A decent winger and goalkicker, Bennett made appearances for Queensland and Australia before embarking on a coaching career in 1976 that has since defined him as the best there has ever been.
With seven Premierships – six during 20 years with the Brisbane Broncos and another with St George Illawarra – Bennett has also overseen triumphs for Queensland in the State of Origin series and, as assistant to Stephen Kearney, helped plot New Zealand’s shock 2008 World Cup win over his homeland.
As the Kangaroos beat the Kiwis 16-0 in last week’s trans-Tasman Test, Bennett was a keen observer.
Having returned to lead the Broncos again last year, Bennett had eight of his players involved. But, intriguingly, he also took note as the England national team coach, plotting their path to the 2017 World Cup to be held in Australia. And he remains as driven and focused about winning as when he first started out.
“The thrill of the next win, the fix, that’s what drives me,” Bennett told Sport360.
“It’s not about making history, or a trophy, no. I won’t do it if it’s not enjoyable anymore, or the challenge isn’t there, as I’d be letting a lot of people down. But it’s still there. The highlight for me has been doing it all for so long. I was brought up in a small country town in Queensland called Allora and my father played rugby league there.
“So these men were my heroes because we didn’t have the television back then and coverage of the game and that type of stuff. I loved those men and most of them have died, but I hope they will always be proud of what I’ve done because they were just proud rugby league people. They did it for the love of the game, played their hearts out.
“Listen, I just enjoy what I do. I’ve loved what I’ve been doing and kind of never worried about anything else. Going to work every day with enthusiasm and commitment, and helping young men around me to enjoy what they are doing too. There’s a pretty good chance of having success when you do that.”
Success has followed, but with a life of hardships. In his 2002 book, ‘Don’t Die with the Music in You’, he revealed how he “made a promise to his mother not to smoke or drink or gamble like his father” and joined the police force aged 15 to help support his two sisters and two brothers.
With two of his three children disabled, Bennett has since endured further challenges off the field. On it, his passionate, outspoken views, and refusal to shy away from tough or unpopular decisions, has seen Bennett widely referred to as rugby league’s equivalent of legendary football manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Both were dedicated to their professions, survivors and inspirational.
“I followed his career…know all about him,” says Bennett. “If that’s someone’s opinion, that I’m like Ferguson, that’s OK, but I’ve never compared myself to anyone. That’s been the challenge for me, to always do more than you’ve done before.”
While in Manchester for his England unveiling in February, Bennett couldn’t help observe what was happening at Old Trafford.
“I look at other sports coaches, absolutely, all the time,” adds Bennett, whose first post was at Ipswich before spells at Brisbane sides Souths and Brothers. “You don’t stop learning or observing how they do things. Good coaches, good managers, people who have success over a long period of time, they are not lucky.
“It’s not about luck if you have long-term success. So I look at those people, those organisations and what they have done well, what they haven’t done well.
“I look at the NRL in Australia and the teams that have the most success are the ones that have had long-term coaches. It’s getting players out there and getting them to do what you want them to do. Sometimes it takes more than one or two years.”
Bennett can testify that through his own experience. Before he joined newly-formed Brisbane in 1988, and turned them into the world’s best club side, he was under fire. It was similar to Ferguson when an FA Cup triumph in 1990 silenced his critics, and proved the launch pad for a remarkable trophy haul and 26 years at United.
“It was tough at the start, really tough,” recalls Bennett. “I was a young coach and it was the making of me.
“There was a big hunt to get me out and the chairman came out and told the media that he had just signed me on a life contract and I wasn’t leaving. They never worried me after that and the club went on to have some great success. But if he hadn’t done that then I don’t know where the club would have gone, or how my career would have gone.”
Bennett, though, would have kept fighting to fulfil his ambitions. Just like now as he looks to put the pain of last season’s Grand Final loss to the North Queensland Cowboys behind him and build another successful Broncos dynasty.
“I would never walk away from a job, it’s not who I am,” he adds. “Great organisations have a strong culture and they build from within.
“They get what they want from the outside, but always they build a foundation that’s not made of bloody sand and straw, but of bricks and concrete that’s strong.”
Trophies obviously help teams stand out, though, and Brisbane have notably not won the Premiership since Bennett led them to a 15-8 Grand Final win over Melbourne Storm 10 years ago.
They came so close to ending that drought last October when a golden point drop-goal from Johnathan Thurston clinched a 17-16 result for the Cowboys.
Having started the season strongly – currently joint-top in the standings and beaten the Cowboys 21-20 with their own extra-time winner – Bennett is keen to go a step further.
His side visit Manly on Saturday and he says: “For us, we know what we are capable of. We lost that final, but most times in big games, you don’t get beaten, you beat yourself. And we beat ourselves that night.
“Our challenge is to see if we can get ourselves back for that Grand Final and get it right this time.”