Watching the Champions Cup games last weekend, with no English sides now left in the competition, made me realize the main difference between the Gallagher Premiership clubs and the teams left from Ireland and France. While there are arguments that it comes down to squad size and the salary cap, which is set to be cut by Premiership clubs by over £1 million next season, the teams put out by Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks were still competitive.
What actually stood out was just how good the Premiership referees and officials have become in recent seasons, because in both those matches it was effectively the Wild West out there at the breakdown with the interpretations by referees from other countries, and the way they communicated as well with the television match official was nowhere near as streamlined as we see in the Premiership either.
A lot of that comes down actually to the quality of the TV directors as well, and I know we have touched on this before, but when you are reviewing those key incidents there are really three parties involved in the referee, TMO and TV director.
Now, Racing have a quality side and were always like to win on Sunday. But we had a moment in the game in Paris where there was a head-on-head contact and, yet again, the French TV director said he was unable to find any further angles when asked for more by the TMO to review the incident. That has to be looked at, and I’m sure it will be by Tony Spreadbury, who has recently become European Professional Club Rugby’s head of match officials joining from the Rugby Football Union.
When moments like that happen in a game, it can take quite a resilient side to bounce back. Things happen which can be turning points, defining moments in games. You can be both affected on the scoreboard but also psychologically as well.
In Sale’s case they were playing to keep their season alive really, given they cannot make the top four in the Premiership. They now face a battle to stay in the top eight to secure Champions Cup rugby for next season, currently sitting in seventh with London Irish and Wasps breathing down their necks.
But overall they are left in an interesting place after that defeat in Paris – how do they maintain the energy and enthusiasm in their changing room over the next few weeks at the end of the season with little on the line.
‘If you are lying to yourself then you are lying to your team-mates’
There used to be a good opening joke if you were an after-dinner speaker at rugby events around mid-February that you had just come from Harlequins’ end-of-season dinner the night before. Obviously that one doesn’t work quite so well now given Quins’ recent success, but teams who are not fighting for silverware at this point of the season are left facing a dilemma. How do you maintain both personal and collective drive if things have not worked out for you over the course of the season.
If you look at Bath’s changing room, sitting at the bottom of the table, it is clearly broken. People on both the outside and inside can see that. And what you need to rebuild that is trust, in the people who are selecting the team and in each other so that everyone can be on the same page. No backstabbing, no talks behind closed doors, an open forum. Once those changing rooms go, your season is over.
It takes strong, honest leaders to make sure you get through those spells. Personally I have not quite been in an entire changing room like that, but I have been broken myself in terms of being in a team where I didn’t think I was going to stay, which was Leicester in 1998. Bob Dwyer had just left , I’d had two years of no break at all and was completely knackered, had gone off kilter with the club and started not performing, thinking only about myself.
Dean Richards spotted that very quickly and basically said get yourself back in line or we will get rid of you. And in that scenario you just have to be honest with yourself.
There will be a lot of players walking around with big headphones on, thinking they are the best thing since sliced bread. But really, you only realize how fortunate you are to be in the game once it has gone and you have retired.
The key to all of that is being honest with yourself and your team-mates, whether you’re in a struggling changing room like Bath or one with little to play for in Sale, or a successful one like Leicester at the moment. If you are lying to yourself then you are lying to your team-mates, and that is how teams and cultures break down. Honesty is the best policy.