Stuart Barnes’ talking points: Bledisloe III, England fly-halves, and farewell to ‘the Tank’

Stuart Barnes pays tribute to Thomas Waldrom, looks ahead to Bledisloe III, and assesses the form of England’s fly-halves…

1 The final lap en-route to the World Cup begins this Saturday. Appropriately enough the venue is Yokohama, where the 2019 World Cup final will be played.

Also appropriate; New Zealand – the winners of the last two World Cups – will kick-start the run-in, their opponents their old rivals, Australia. We will watch the Wallabies with interest.

They have endured a poor year to date but Michael Cheika is a smart coach and Australia have some high-class performers. It doesn’t do to dismiss them quite yet.

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However, most eyes will be on the All Blacks. Fortuitous to win last time up against the Springboks, and beaten by the same opposition in Wellington, the world waits to see whether lessons have been learned against South Africa.

New Zealand has a reputation for learning fast. Tune into Sky on Saturday morning to see if they are back at the front of the class. I’m be glued to the game before heading off to Coventry for our Green King IPA match later that day. So much for the immediate future…

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2 Let’s hear it for Thomas Waldrom. The tank has retired, aged 35, playing out his final playing days with Wellington in the Mitre 10 Cup.

A bit-part Super Rugby player with the Hurricanes, the slower pace of the European game transformed him into a star and one of rugby’s cult personalities. At Leicester he became one of the most effective back row players in the Premiership, becoming an England international in the process.

Leicester let him go to Exeter and the Big Man simply steamed on. A try scorer from close range, an adept footballer all over the park, here was a man who looked like a throwback to another age but had the skill, the commitment and class to leave his mark, especially on the English club stage.

3 From a past international to the potential future England team. There was plenty for Eddie Jones to smile about Friday night at Welford Road. In particular, Manu Tuilagi exploded back into Test-match contention with a dynamic second half.

Scarlets defenders were drawn into his hard-running orbit as he bashed them out of his way, creating quick ball for others.

I’ve been saying he needs a few months fit and fresh before England fans get carried away. But here was a return to the old Manu of which we have seen very little. The odds on him playing for England this November have shrunk.

4 Good to see another high-energy and accurate performance from Johnny May. So many people want him to remain the figure of fun that some once regarded him. Those headless days are long over.

He is a superb chaser of a kick, fine passer of a ball and possessed of the speed and balance to make a half-chance seem the easiest of scores. There are not that many better wings in the game.

5 And still we remain with Leicester and their Friday night win against what was admittedly a heavily weakened Scarlets team. Amidst some superb rugby, there was one worry for Jones.

Ben Youngs had a dreadful game. He has not been decisive all season but looks sure to start for England against the Springboks. He is taking too many paces in the pass and his decision-making is hesitant. He didn’t make life easy for George Ford.

To his credit, the Leicester fly-half played with cool control. For all the talk of Owen Farrell as the England fly-half, Ford is the one I believe has the vision required to wear the fly-half shirt for England.

6 Farrell had a sloppy game in Saracens comfortable win against Lyon. No big deal; everybody performs below par now and again. England’s joint-captain is not suddenly under pressure for his place but it’s right to occasionally mention the fact the star men are mortal like the rest of us.

When Ford or Danny Cipriani have an off day, there’s normally some mention. When Farrell is poor there’s an embarrassed silence. We should criticise the best as much as we praise them.

7 As for the Gloucester fly-half, can he avoid the headlines? On-field, off-field, selection and now a red card. Most of his coaches would have been pleased to see him lend his shoulder to the defence. But times have changed.

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We are closing in on zero tolerance when it comes to contact with the head and shoulders. That’s fine but the fact that the sport’s authorities have turned a blind eye to challenges that were never legal within the laws of the game are not. Instinctive behaviour is suddenly red-card rugby. That isn’t right.

8 Let’s enjoy some less contentious European weekend memories, Who would have thought that Newcastle would back up an away win against a hapless Toulon with a memorable late winner against Montpellier? (Well, me for one, I don’t trust Montpellier as far as I can throw Frans Steyn).

But it’s a great story for the Premiership’s bottom-placed team. Dean Richards will see this as an opportunity to reignite their spluttering early-season form.

9 It’s touch and go between Newcastle and Toulouse for team of the week. Given the quality of the opposition, I’ll cast my vote for the four-times European champions. The reigning champions, Leinster, won’t be panicking but this was a mighty effort from the French side; good for them and good for the tournament.

10 I still can’t quite believe that the team Toulouse beat in week one, Bath, via their high profile owner, Bruce Craig, actually came out in favour of a replayed game because a couple of on-field decisions didn’t go their way at the Recreation Ground.

That’s how sport is; intense and immediate. Much as Mr Craig might like it to be purely a business, it is not. It was all a little embarrassing for those of us with some historical links to this particular club.

Oh well… we all make mistakes, see you in Coventry, folks.

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