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After 21 gruelling rounds of Gallagher Premiership rugby the runners and riders are still not quite settled.  Five teams are still jostling for Champions Cup rugby places whilst Saints and Quins are still gunning for fourth place to secure a semi final berth.

It has been quite a season on so many levels and when you think that Harlequins could make that play off spot in 4th when they have only won about half their games it looks slightly bonkers.  

Even the Top 2 Exeter and Saracens which were comfortably ensconced in positions 1 and 2 respectively may well end up changing spots.  The big showdown between Exeter and Saracens which would have been eagerly anticipated by fans and BT Sport as a big highlight of the season became something quite different when a Sarries B team ran riot against an Exeter B team.  You can’t blame the coaches for fielding the sides they did and both have earnt the right to rest up their big guns.  Exeter perhaps had slightly more to lose as they now have to win their final game to ensure they retain top seed status and a slightly easier home semi final.

The game itself allowed the rule to be run over a group of very promising Academy lads.  Where Saracens had the edge in this game was in the forwards who included not so young Schalk Burger, Nick Isiekwe and man mountain Will Skelton.  This allowed their youngsters in the back line to shine and fly half Max Malins and centre Dom Morris caught the eye. 

Exeter’s coach Rob Baxter now has to earn his corn in deciding what team to put out at Sandy Park against Saints for the final game.  I suspect he will go for a virtually full strength side to gain meomentum following what has been for them a strange hiatus which has led to some under par performances.  Exeter I think have been biding their time and will be fully focussed and back to their best when it comes to the play offs.  We all know how good they can be and with rested players chomping at the bit I feel Saints may have a battle to nail the 4th place.

As for the Cherry & Whites they managed to get back on track with a win against Newcastle.  A win that finally condemned the Falcons to relegation.  As I have said before as much as relegation adds excitement our league is still not rich enough or big enough to allow one club each season to fall into the Championship.  It takes time to build a club, a culture and a fan base and it also takes money.  Lots of money.  We do not have sufficient money sloshing around our sport and owners do not have endless access to cash.  Giving it some thought I think possibly a home and away play off to decide if someone comes up.  If a team in the Championship has the quality to beat a Premiership team then maybe they are good enough to earn their place. 

As for Glos they just have a tricky away fixture up at Sale to negotiate before probably heading over to North London to face Saracens in the semi final.   I am really excited to see what Gloucester can do in this semi final and with most of the injured players fit and firing the teams look well matched.  Saracens have never found Gloucester easy to play and this could be a humdinger that Gloucester have every chance of winning. 

Harlequins have slipped up in their chase for the top 4 and now need a big win up at Wasps and hope Saints get nothing out of Exeter.  They also have Sale and Bath breathing down their neck and could slip to 7th if results go against them.  On the whole though I think the report card for Paul Gustard’s first season at the helm is a positive one.  Quins have sharpened up and added some physicality and defensive structure to their game which is how they find themselves in the position they are in.  it is also worth pointing out they have the highest amount of losing bonus points which demonstrates they have become much more competitive as a side.

Saints are another team who have like Quins under a new coach cleaned up their act and Chris Boyd has them playing a wonderful attacking style of rugby that is delivering results.  They won’t fear going down to Sandy Park and with lashings of youthful exuberance will definitely take the game to the Chiefs.

Leicester Tigers have stumbled home this season sitting currently in an unlikely and for them shocking 11th place.   They have a final home game which is against traditional rivals Bath to put on a big display for the loyal fans and make sure their season does not peter out with yet another loss.

Bath though still have things to play for so will go full bore and this game could go anyway.  Welford Road sadly is no longer a fortress so I am not sure the home advantage will count for much.  Bath however have been horribly inconsistent and with the quality of player they have are probably not quite where they should be.  I thought they played brilliantly last week to get the victory against Wasps.  If  they can take that form into the Tigers game and other results go their way then the Bath boys may need to put holiday plans on hold as they could be in the play offs.

 All eyes turn northwards on Saturday to  St James’  Park on Saturday for the Heineken Champions Cup Final.  Both Leinster and Saracens are already clutching fistfuls of winners medals and with the Irish side looking for an astounding 5th title this is a meeting of two rugby dynasties. 

Both teams look likely to be nearly full strength.  Mako Vunipola is supposedly out of his protective boot and Brad Barritt is hopeful for Saracens and Leinster relieved that Sean Cronin looks good to start alongside Rhys Ruddock.  The match ups are titanic  with Irish and English internationals and British & Irish Lions going up against each other. 

The bookmakers cannot separate the two teams which tells you everything and means neither side can claim the underdog status.  Looking at likely line ups I feel Leinster have the edge in the front row, centres and back row.  Their all action starting front row with tighthead Tadgh Furlong and partner Cian Healey combines raw power with technical skills and the back row with Aussie Scott Fardy tearing it up alongside a revitalised Sean O’Brien and coming man Jack Conan overall looks stronger than Sarries. 

If Brad Barritt does not recover then Leinster hands down win the centre battle.  Henshaw and Ringrose are a class pairing who both looked immense in the semi final against Toulouse. For Saracens the back three, locks and half backs edge their opponents but we all know teams are more than the sum of their parts and tactics, physicality, desire and decision making will play a massive role.  It is going to come down to small margins, one missed tackle, a soft penalty, a bounce of the ball, a high tackle.  In these big games nerves can play a part albeit these two sides have mostly been there seen it and done it.  However in a very tight game the wobblies can creep in and seeing England implode on a few occasions with many of the Sarries lads involved it may give Leinster hope.  Saracens on the other hand will have plenty of players remembering a certain day in Dublin during the Six Nations when Ireland were taken apart.  So whoever you are supporting or if you are a neutral this is a game to relish.  Let’s hope these two do not cancel each other out with their defences and we get to see one of the great European finals.

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The drama of the Premiership eased slightly last weekend particularly on the relegation front. It looks like Newcastle Falcons are doomed and you just must feel for the club and fans. To go from 4th last year to relegation is a hard one to swallow. With in-form Gloucester lying in wait on Saturday it is hard to see the Falcons getting the points to stave off the final blow. Should they however somehow, someway find their form and put in a massive performance to overturn Gloucester and then Leicester lose away to Quins - put the kettle on and settle down for another dramatic weekend.


In truth this was overall genuinely one tough season with Falcons still not mathematically relegated and Leicester Tigers in an unbelievable 11th place. The tightness of the league was shown by the way teams who have won around half their games are still in with top four chances and European qualification. Exeter and Saracens have taken points off nearly everyone and all the other teams have taken points off each other.


Some might think it is a pointless scramble for top 4 when Exeter and Saracens look like they have it sewn up but dig a little deeper into results and you can see there were plenty of tight games only just won by the top 2 and they have both lost games they were expected to win. Now there are still about 4 teams who could grab that final playoff spot, so this is an intriguing set of fixtures coming up.


When it comes to the Twickenham final for me Gloucester look best placed for an assault on the established duo and their probable semi final against Saracens is going to be something special. It is lip smacking to see that Glos pack up against a nearly all England 8 and of course let us not forget the Cipriani v Farrell match up. On paper Sarries may have a slight edge but Gloucester need to believe and go there with heads switched on and prepared to be very physical. With the likes of Mostert, Marais, Ackerman, Slater and Ben Morgan at their best they have weapons a plenty in the pack and of course some classy and pacy backs. The away loss to Worcester would not have been in the plan for the Cherry & Whites and it was an uncharacteristic display. You have to credit Worcester however who still had survival to play for and put a massive amount into the game coming away deserved winners.


A lot will depend of course on the outcome of the European Champions Cup final as to what motivation Saracens will have for the semi-final playoff and also of course whether they are hit with any significant injuries. They play Exeter this Saturday in what should have been a massive show down but is now likely, at least from the Saracens side, to feature more of a second string.


Exeter by their own standards are wobbling but I think it is understandable. I often talk about the psychological side of rugby as being critical. Let’s be honest rugby hurts. A lot. To physically get yourself in the right state to go out and smash into other human beings with real intensity needs something at stake. Exeter has been comfortably into a home semi final for weeks now and that is tough for the players to find any motivation. For their game against Quins at Sandy Park they started like a train playing some sublime stuff but just could not keep up that intensity and fair play to Quins their scrum and set piece was awesome and they came right back in to nearly snatch an away win. I personally loved the reaction from Quins boss Paul Gustard when asked about an ‘unlikely’ away win. Guzzie snapped back at the reporter that he did not view Quins as the underdogs, and he believed they were just as good as Exeter. Good for him. The leader board says differently but what great motivation for his team when the boss tells the world you are as good as anyone in the league.


Come semi final time coach Rob Baxter will need to find a way to get his players back in warrior mode to make sure they are fired up for the two games that really, really matter at the end of a long season. Who will be their visitors remains to be seen with Northampton Saints looking like the likely candidates? What is notable however is that in this penultimate round of Premiership fixtures most of the games still have something riding on them. Even if this league did not have relegation with 12 competitive teams fighting for Home semis, Top 4 and Top 6 I think we can forget about too many dead rubbers.


Next season London Irish make their expected move back up to the Prem and congratulations to them. It is a very hard slog playing in the Championship with around 6 sides who will give you a hugely competitive game plus many who will just be big powerful units who will make you work for your points. Given the quality of the guys Irish are signing up the Premiership looks like it will continue to be one of the toughest rugby leagues in the world.


Final shout out to the women’s game with the Tyrells 15’s league really establishing itself as a top-quality product. The final was played out on Saturday up at Franklins Gardens with Saracens taking on Harlequins and the game was a brilliant advert for women’s rugby. Some absolute quality on show and a good size crowd there to watch. It is the fastest growing part of our game and if you have not caught much women’s rugby give it a try.

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If this was prize fighting we definitely saw the heavyweight division this weekend in the European Champions Cup.    All four semi finalists had lifted the trophy more than once so these were four tea...

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At times like this in the season some Directors of Rugby at Premiership clubs must wonder why on earth they ever took the job. The noise and discussion is all around the ‘R’ word and for the teams hovering in that horrible dark zone at the bottom of the table it must dominate everything else. Survival is now the name of the game. Where’s Ray Mears when you need him…


With rugby club royalty Leicester Tigers hovering just above the relegation zone there is a sense of panic in the Premier League. The last ‘big’ clubs to go down were Saints and Harlequins who survived and made it back without too much damage. The landscape has shifted however with more TV money swishing around the Prem it means squads are more expensive and you need now need those top-quality players to compete. Tumble into the Championship with a £7m wage bill and it is going to be a titanic struggle to stay afloat.  For the Premiership to be missing such big hitters as the Tigers with their 24k crowds and massive support base will also have an impact on TV viewing figures and sponsorship. Despite all that, short of a last minute panic deal to ring fence or increase the league to 13, it could happen.


Tigers face fellow struggler Newcastle Falcons on Friday night in a game that has instant ramifications for both. If Falcons lose, they will feel cut adrift with only three games to go and should Tigers lose with no bonus point they will be staring relegation full in the face.


Newcastle Falcons so very nearly came away from Allianz Park in North London with a deserved losing bonus point that just might have been crucial for survival in the league.  It was a strong Falcons side missing just a couple of key men and they took the fight to Saracens. Live wire scrum half Takulua was everywhere and the forwards fronted up well in the set piece. The issue was their inability to break down the Sarries defence which was brick wall like.


Not the most scintillating first half which felt like a defence drill for the Sarries boys and not much else. The champions were quite frankly poor with countless errors and I guess the gulf between the sides is shown by the fact they still went on to win with a bonus point. Perhaps the Sarries mid-season break - they spent three days in St Anton in party mode - just might not have led to the best training and preparation they have ever had! Throw in the absence of the likes of Mako, Billy, Jamie George, Liam Williams, Will Skelton and Alex Goode and I guess coach Mark McCall is probably relieved they escaped with the points.


My belief is even if Tigers can’t claw out a win on Friday, they still can win again this season. There is the obvious rider though that for the players the fear and tension that takes over your body in these relegation games can lead to muddled thinking and errors you would not normally make. It’s pure pressure and we have all seen top class kickers miss easy punts at goal when the heat is on or normally safe hands drop passes in cup finals. How Tigers deal with these next four games will come down to their mentality. With Mike Ford hauled into camp to add some of his big game match experience and coaching nous they are aware they needed something different. Mike did not manage to shore up the defence in the game against Exeter, but the attack and physicality was much improved. Tigers were not good enough for the high flying league leaders but play the same way in their next four games and the spectre of relegation will vanish.


For Worcester Warriors despite a good fight against Wasps they are still a candidate for the drop. Their run in looks tricksy playing teams in the Top 6 with a final game against a Saracens side that always seem to peak around this time of the year. The clink of light is they also have three home games and have shown themselves more than capable of taking on the top sides on their artificial turf. Coach Alan Solomans has them playing in a good style and you cannot doubt some of the quality he has in the squad.  Sale are travelling down the M6 and if they suffer from their normal travel sickness this could be an opportunity for Worcester to grab some vital points


Bristol still have some work to do before the champagne comes out with Saracens at home this weekend followed by Leicester away. The Tigers away game takes on the look of a massive game should both teams lose this weekend.


Elsewhere in the league I was thrilled to see Gloucester travel away to the in-form Northampton Saints and put in a big, big performance. As an ex forward, to me their pack is a thing of beauty with enough grunt, power and size to take on anybody. The backs have been good for a while but with the addition of Cipriani and strengthening of the forward pack the side looks beautifully balanced.


That valuable away win puts Glos in a fantastic position to nail a play off place which would be superb for the players and fans. It is always good to see the teams change in the top 4 and to have both Quins and Glos back up there brings excitement and some unpredictability. For me Gloucester has the best chance of upsetting the odds with a team that is now a match for Sarries and Exeter. Should Sarries reach the European finals they may be playing Gloucester in the Prem semi-final the following weekend and this could be the Cherry & Whites chance to put in a massive performance and power themselves into that final at Twickenham.  

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Quarter final weekend for the Champions Cup is a big highlight in the calendar with four tasty games featuring the top sides in Europe to look forward to.


If there was a slight air of disappointment at the actual match ups that gave us teams meeting very familiar foes from their own leagues or pools - that went out of the window from the very first game.


Edinburgh have been sailing along on a wave of Richard Cockerill inspired self-belief. The ex-Leicester man has inserted some good old Tigers values into Edinburgh with the school of very tough love being the main one. Players have had to buckle down and work their socks off and the disciplined approach plus some genuine coaching nous has seen Edinburgh into a European quarter final. And they so nearly made that a semi-final too. I thought Edinburgh played such good rugby but ultimately it was the ‘cup’ team Munster who prevailed through their sheer will to win and ‘been there and done it’ attitude. Edinburgh got unlucky with a couple of decisions and when their prop put a casual shoulder into Tadgh Biernie it swung the game The Munster man went out of his way to ensure the referee knew it with a what can only be kindly interpreted as an over obvious reaction and Edinburgh learnt a harsh lesson about Europe. In big stakes games players will go right to the edge. Do we want to see players throwing themselves to the floor in rugby? Of course not. However, the lesson learnt in European rugby is that its high stakes so do not allow yourself to give the oppo a sniff to do anything like that at all. Shoeman, the Edinburgh prop, did not need to do what he did and in future knock out games I can’t see it happening again.


As for Munster – what is there left to say about this wonderful team. Their passion for this cup competition is so clear to see and as is often the case in rugby when you bring that to the table you can get over the line. They have to face up to Saracens now in the semi final but at the Ricoh Stadium where their fans will no doubt dominate, they will not go down without a fight. The Munster defence has been sensational during this cup run and Saracens will need to play a different game to break them down. Easy scores will not be given, and every Munster player will put his body on the line.


Over at Allianz Park there was a short flurry of excitement as Glasgow ran in a breathtaking try in the opening minutes and we thought we had a game on our hands. Saracens however reset and went again and proceeded to totally dominate Glasgow. The Scottish side could not live with the power of the Sarries pack aligned to slick handling and the skills of a Liam Williams, Alex Goode and indeed Jamie George. The England hooker put in a masterclass - whizzing passes out - particularly a scrum half pass to put David Strettle over for a try.


Sturart Hogg may have been regretting the choice of hair colour as his peroxide mop only served to highlight him even more when he made uncharacteristic error after error. It was a shame because he was still such a threat and showed he could unlock the Sarries defence. After the game it seemed Glasgow were dismissed as being poor but in truth this team had run Sarries very close up in Scotstoun and were in with a shout in the return pool fixture until Sarries got a couple of late tries. I had expected a bit more from them but Saracens even without new Dad Owen Farrell who was in the maternity ward were in the mood to play and when they are fully on it in European games most teams struggle to live with them. That Munster clash is starting to look very tasty indeed.


When the Leinster v Ulster quarter was announced most would have groaned. Predictable, a Pro14 regular fixture, a comfortable win for Leinster – all quite rightly would have thought. It turned into a stormer. It was a Test match like game with Ulster putting in one of their best performances for a while. Luck plays a role in rugby – of course it does – and also, we know there are some tiny little margins often between winning and losing. Jacob Stockdale the sensational Ulster winger worked his magic to put himself in a position to score a vital try and just failed to ground it. That was a momentum swinger and game changer. Leinster whilst not at their best and missing their talisman Sexton still had enough to see out the game and will have some key men back for the semi-final. The Dublin side has not looked as comfortable this year and looking at this quarter you can argue they were beforehand comfortable favourites. No one however will remember that if they go on to lift the trophy again in Newcastle.


The most entertaining game of the weekend was the all French affair which if you did not see it I recommend you try and find online and give it a watch. Drama all over the place with a red card for Toulouse in the first 20 minutes which contributed to a ‘throw caution to the wind’ approach and some quite scintillating rugby. The red card has ceased to be the game killer it used to be and whilst there is no doubt it is horrendously difficult to win with a man down there have been enough times it has been done to show it can also galvanise a team who feel hard done by.


Toulouse in Racing 92’s raucous and disco style stadium played stupendous rugby and Racing who physiologically thought they had ‘got this’ found themselves struggling to contain them. Why of why can’t the French national team play like this? Toulouse for their reward now get an away semi against Leinster which seems a little harsh! The new rules however state home country semi finals go to the higher seeds and Leinster therefore are once again back in the comforts of the Aviva stadium.


Is it just me or has Challenge Cup rugby got much more exciting? The quality of some of the teams on show has led to such cracking games and as nice as it was to see the quarters, I could have wished for a few more of the pool games to get a bit of airtime. Sides such as Clermont, La Rochelle, Connacht, Northampton and Quins surely merit that. The semis see Harlequins having to travel out to Clermont and Sale Sharks also take a trip out to France to face La Rochelle. Tough assignments for both those teams and you would not be surprised to see an all French final. Sale have a small squad and an eye on the Premiership league position plus Quins also want desperately to stay in a playoff place and get a tilt at the Premiership title.


So passports away now folks for the next two weeks as the Premiership starts its home run and with so much still on the line for most of the teams expect fireworks and more drama to come.

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The Six Nations is all over and the relentlessness of the Gallagher Premiership was shown clearly this last weekend as tired returning internationals were shoved straight back into the starting fiftee...

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Warren Gatland and his magnificent men in red had a weekend of epic proportions. Grand Slams are rare old beasts for a reason given how dam tough they are but all along Gatland predicted that if Wales beat France away in the opening game they would go on and bag yet another title. Gatts has now got to be up there as one of the most revered and respected coaches in the world. Having worked with him at Wasps I know what the man offers, and it is a lot. He is a smart tactician and brilliant man manager and Wales have truly benefitted from having him at the helm. It has been quite a ride he has taken Wales on and with the World Cup on the horizon it is Gatland, rather than Eddie Jones, who has steadily built, plotted and planned and got his side in the perfect place to make an assault on the Rugby World Cup.


As Saturday unfolded at Twickenham the English nation went into deep shock. We couldn’t possibly lose this. Could we? We certainly could. The Scots came thundering back in a second half that was right up there as one of the best sporting comebacks in history.


There have been reams of anguished prose churned out and in-depth analysis on radio and podcasts picking apart what went wrong but it was probably just a tiny shift in momentum at the end of the first half that ended up causing the ensuing carnage. That charge down try jump started the Scotland team and then allowed the momentum to propel them into a magnificent come back, Disaster for England as their game totally crumbled and Scotland grew and grew in self-belief to oh so nearly snatch an incredible, historic win.


Are England mentally weak is the question so many are asking. That is a strong statement and harsh on a group of players who have shown passion, desire and strength of character. Leadership is still lacking with just not quite enough gnarly older heads who have seen it all before. Farrell is improving as a captain, but it is a heavy burden to be fly half and captain and there is a reason why it is rare to combine the two. Perhaps Maro Itoje or Jamie George should have been looked at and groomed for the role as both have captained at club level and Maro at England U20’s.


 It was a little too easy for England in the first half when they played with almost outrageous confidence off loading the ball and slicing open Scotland at will. But the game was also played at searing pace. This meant when England went onto the back foot, they could not find the emotional and physical energy they needed to fight the resurgent Scots. When you throw away a big lead it mentally and physically drains you. For Scotland however that feeling of closing the gap on your opposition must have been revitalising and energy giving.


England were superb in that first 30 minutes and over the whole Six Nations had just two poor halves.  I would not be writing the obituaries yet for this England side who have also demonstrated they can score tries and plenty of them. Long criticised for an inability to get over the whitewash it now looks like what is needed is some rebalancing between attack and defence and then just maybe England will go into the World Cup in good shape.



Mixed feelings I am sure for Ireland with self doubt now swirling around the team. In some ways they may have peaked too early but they also will surely reset, refocus and under the inimitable Joe Schmidt turn back into that ruthless green machine that dominated last year. What was looking originally like an easy pool in the World Cup and a guaranteed quarter final slot will now look a shade harder with Scotland quite rightly believing they have every chance of elbowing Ireland out of that top spot.


I really felt for Italy this Championship as they were so close to gaining some victories yet ended with the wooden spoon yet again. It was cruel timing for coach Connor O Shea as the last couple of months have seen players skittled by injuries leaving an already small squad patchy and threadbare in places. Promising signes there were aplenty with the Italian attack looking sharper and more skilful and some new young talent beginning to shine.


As for our enigmatic friends the French we are no better informed about where they are in this crucial year. Shambolic on and off the pitch they may be but oh boy do they have talent. As admirable a thing it is to keep appointing French coaches surely by now the FFR see the need to bring in some fresh thinking and experience from other parts of the world.


The Six Nations 2019 table only tells half the story and if at times the rugby was not of the highest standard the drama never flagged. It is now back this weekend to Premiership rugby which will have virtually every side jostling for league position. Returning internationals will no doubt be straight back into club colours to help gain crucial points with many then running out in European quarter finals the week after. The Six Nations may be over but the drama is not.

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Marauding Manu, Scrappy Scots and the luck of the Irish

First things first, let us start this week’s blog off with a visual aid…

The various permutations of this 6N are truly incredible! Okay then, so now that’s all cleared up let us get down to the bus...

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What a scrap this weekend was in the Gallagher Premiership with three of the league’s bottom sides landing a killer blow against teams above them. That keeps the league looking as tight as ever with a tiny 2 points separating fifth to ninth and Newcastle Falcons now breathing heavily onto the back of the neck of the Worcester Warriors.

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If we did not know it already it was confirmed this last weekend that the Six Nations tournament is truly epic. The toughness of away fixtures, the passion, the rivalry and the upsets! Wouldn’t sport be boring if the results always went the way you thought they would? What we have now instead of England being in box seat for a Grand Slam it has switched to Wales. Wales, however have a couple of nasty fixtures lined up that could flip that on its head with a trip up to Murrayfield and a final home fixture against an Ireland side still in the hunt for the Championship title.

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There was no Six Nations for us to ponder the past weekend but there were plenty of talking points from what turned out, for some, to be a rusty resumption of the Gallagher Premiership.  It looked like the start of the season in many cases with teams who had had recent game time looking better prepared and sharper than those who had no meaningful games and had most of their boys sunning themselves in Dubai.


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Twickenham is a grand day out and on Sunday it was a sea of France  and England fans in high good humour and awash with expectations.  The Bollinger and Guinness tents were heaving and the sun was threatening to come out.  All set up then for another historic ‘Le Crunch’ game?  Sadly not - as Les Bleus sad to say were pretty shambolic.  Whilst showing flashes of sublime skills they were thoroughly outplayed, and outthought, by a totally dominant England side. The coaching seemed non existent and there were not enough leaders out on the pitch to extract any kind of control on the game.

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