Awaiting its UK cinema release next month is the Battle of the Sexes, the film based around the famous 1970s tennis duel between Billie Jean King and her male opponent, Bobby Riggs. It is a game, set and match tale of casual assumptions and punctured egos that should also serve as a reminder to all sports that traditional supremacy is neither a God-given prerogative nor a permanent state.
Billie Jean has not been spotted at many Saracens fixtures but she would have appreciated the debate that has surfaced in the wake of Sunday’s Champions Cup thrashing of Northampton. It is a simple enough question: if Saracens entered the Six Nations, would they win it? The answer, on the evidence of their halo-trashing eight-try win over Saints at Franklin’s Gardens, is probably yes.
Imagine if the treble-chasing European champions were preparing to kick off the 2018 Six Nations. They would certainly have a front five to compete with anyone: two Lions Test starters at loosehead and hooker, another two in Maro Itoje and George Kruis, the fast-rising Nick Isiekwe and a brace of world-class tightheads in Vincent Koch and Juan Figallo.
Even without the injured Billy Vunipola, they can unleash the experience of Schalk Burger and Schalk Brits off the bench and at 10 is the rock‑like Owen Farrell. Few pierce holes through the midfield defensive wall of Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch, Liam Williams is a multitalented asset on the right wing and the rugby intelligence and technical excellence of Alex Goode and Richard Wigglesworth combine to knit the whole package together beautifully.
Of course they have the advantage of being able to trawl from other countries’ stocks; there are also the intangibles of pressure, national pride and superior opposition to take into account. That said, Northampton’s pack contained the current England captain, the in-form Courtney Lawes and several other capped internationals. It was less the 57-13 scoreline that stood out than the high-class nature of the shredding.
Wigglesworth, who had the perfect view from No9, reckoned it was “as good as it gets” and highlighted the composure encouraged by the team’s “next job mentality” whenever they did make a minor error. “When we are like that there is a really good feeling on the pitch,” said the scrum-half. “That is the best we have played this season by a country mile … it’s now the standard we have set for ourselves and we want to live up to that standard.”
Should Eddie Jones pick as many eligible Saracens as possible in his autumn international squad?
The watching Eddie Jones rarely gives much away when the television camera picks him out in the stands but if he were coaching a Saracens-less England against Mark McCall’s team at Twickenham this weekend he would be bracing himself for an extremely testing afternoon. Everyone knows what Farrell, Itoje and Vunipola have brought to England and the Lions’ cause; take them out of England’s starting XV and it really would examine Jones’s much‑vaunted strength in depth.
Would Joe Marler destroy Koch or Hartley outmuscle George? Hardly. Would George Ford smack Farrell backwards on the gainline or improve on his goal‑kicking ratio? Not easily. Which prompts the next question: should Jones accept the compelling evidence of his eyes and pick as many eligible Saracens as possible in his autumn international squad to be unveiled next week? He would certainly be hard-pressed to find a lock forward more instinctively in tune with his existing first-choices than the precocious Isiekwe, any more reliable foot soldiers than Jackson Wray or Barritt or a more composed half-back foil for Farrell than Wigglesworth.
Simply picking a club side lock, stock and beer barrel in an international context does not necessarily work, as Ron Greenwood found in 1980 when he picked the majority of Liverpool’s successful side plus their erstwhile team-mate Kevin Keegan. Despite having a combined 19 European Cup winners’ medals in their squad of 22, England ultimately failed to progress from the group in that year’s European Championship, underlining the difference between club and international football.
In rugby, though, a modern-day version of the old Billie Jean King argument is beginning to resurface. Can it automatically be said that England v France next spring will be superior in quality, power and pace to Saracens v Clermont Auvergne in this season’s European pool stages? Or that this autumn’s Tests will inevitably be a step up in physicality from the biggest games in this year’s Champions Cup? The sign of a classy Test player is one who consistently makes the right decisions and can execute perfectly under pressure; at this precise moment, New Zealand apart, there is no one in the world doing this better than Saracens.
Home and away
The Welsh Rugby Union’s decision to pick only home-based players in future, aside from those with 60 caps to their name, is not quite as draconian as it looks. Players with existing contracts with English or French clubs can still be picked for the time being; someone like the 56-capped Dan Biggar, who is heading for Northampton next summer, and George North will still be available wherever they rest their heads during the week. Unfortunately this policy cannot entirely sidestep the market forces that have prompted Rhys Webb, who has 28 caps, to sign for Toulon. In many ways nothing has really changed: the WRU will have to dig increasingly deep to keep its star players, regardless of whatever regulations are introduced to limit player movement.
One to watch this weekend
Clermont Auvergne v Northampton. If there is one venue where you do not want to be heading after a chastening weekend it is Clermont Auvergne’s Stade Marcel Michelin. Poor Northampton will have to contend with a six-day turnaround and the uneasy sense their record home drubbing to Saracens might yet prove only their second most painful experience this month. The only two words you can use are “character” and “building”.