The weekend after the finish of the Six Nations is often a huge disappointment. Loyal club supporters are pleased they can get back to familiar surroundings but deep down they know that the intensity, glamour and pace of international rugby is special.
It is the same for players. You know that this is where your grounding is, where your close friends and colleagues are. In professional terms, where your bread and butter is. Yet it is not the same. It is not like football, where many fans think internationals are an inconvenient interruption in their entertainment schedule. However fervent the atmosphere at, say, Welford Road, it will never replicate the claustrophobic maelstrom that is produced at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff.
In short, it falls short.
For returning internationals it can be a jolt to be back to club rugby, especially now that they spend nearly seven weeks in camp during the tournament. They will be at training and planning for the weekend but the game will not feature across all the sporting media platforms for the whole week. They are not battling for their place against all the other players in their position nationwide. They will not be receiving either encouragement or abuse across social media.
You also have to factor in the personal element. While your team-mates want you to come back and improve the team, there will be a few who have had game time in your absence and might not be so welcoming. If you turn out and do not reproduce your international form, some will assume you do not care.
Some have no trouble adapting and continue their form seamlessly; others struggle. You might say that players who reach international level should have the professionalism to deal with these factors and that they have a contractual as well as moral duty to perform.
I tried to remind myself that I had a responsibility to play like an international for my club and to do less would be an insult to my team-mates. I used to say to myself that I did not want my opponent, or any opposing fans, to be able to say ‘How the ---- are you an international?’
I never consciously underperformed for my club, and I am sure nearly every other international player is the same. It is only later, and in a deeply honest moment, that you can see and admit that it might have been so. You did not try any less but you know what you produced was not what it could or should have been.
The good news for Premiership fans is that there was little sign of maladaptation in the weekend’s games. There was a huge game at Allianz Park between Saracens and Bath and a belter at Franklin’s Gardens between Northampton and Leicester.
The East Midlands derby has been short on quality, if long on incident, in the past few years. Saturday’s game was one of the best of the season, with the internationals to the fore. Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Louis Picamoles led a ferocious Saints forward effort. Picamoles not only carried as we know he can but showed a surprising turn of pace to set up Saints’ second try. Those efforts would have been enough to claim the win had they not been undermined by their pack’s failure to cope with Tigers at scrum time.
Ben Youngs and Dan Cole were leaders in Leicester’s determination to cling on to Northampton’s coat-tails and keep Tigers close enough to take the game in a thrilling finale.
What all Lions aspirants must remember is that Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, will be looking at their club form, especially in the forthcoming European cup games, and will note any player lacking focus. There will be an eye on returning players like Chris Robshaw, a proven international forward of quality who produced a superb game for Quins against Newcastle. It would surprise some, but if Robshaw’s form continues, he still has a reasonable chance of making the plane.
The same will go for Billy Vunipola, who played only in the last two games of the Six Nations. His club form, which was good in Saracens’ win over Bath on Sunday, could well decide whether Gatland sees him as first choice, replacement or squad member.
By and large, the Premiership games were more than decent, which led me to reconsidering another point. Good weather and firm pitches encourage good rugby. Could the professional game push for a shift to the summer season, leaving the amateur game where it is, with many amateur players being able to go and watch their professional counterparts? It would take some rejigging of the current international calendar – but watching with a cold beer in hand and without 12 layers of clothing has its attractions.
READ MORE ABOUT:
- Courtney Lawes
- Six Nations
- Northampton Saints
- Harlequins Rugby
- Chris Robshaw
- Warren Gatland
- Ben Youngs
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