The recent surge of interest in European rugby has been intense following the new ARU eligibility rules for overseas players.
Out of all the Australians plying their trade in the EU, though, not many were better placed to give a considered opinion on what the new rules meant than Leinster scrum coach Marco Caputo.
For those who came in late, Caputo had a distinguished career in the Australian game with the Brumbies and the Wallabies.
He also won a European Cup with Harlequins as a player, as well as representing Worcester and Clermont Auvergne, and playing for the Barbarians and the French Barbarians against Southern Hemisphere sides.
Caputo became a Level 3 coach while coaching at the Brumbies and recently coached the Leinster forwards during their narrow European Cup semi-final loss to eventual champions Toulon.
So Marco, were the finals of the European Cup as tough as they looked?
“Yes mate, it was a very emotionally draining semi-final vs Toulon. It was a real slugfest with both teams going at each other for 100 mins. They’re really fine margins at this level, we missed a penalty shot and then a drop goal opportunity at 76 and 80 mins to win it – both shots we probably would normally have taken without the added pressure – and then we threw an intercept pass to Bryan Habana in the last minute of play in extra time for Toulon to win it.
“From a Toulon perspective, I guess it confirms their recruitment policy works. Big-game players on big money on big occasions more often than not come up with big plays to win big games. Three European titles on top of a likely French Top 14 triple over three years is proof.
“That said, our league form has been average, and we lose 20-23 players through international duty who, when available, only play for us about six to eight games per year. So I guess we feel it was an opportunity to win that has slipped through our fingers. Had we made it through to the final against Clermont we perhaps would have had a slightly easier assignment, but you have to beat all the good teams eventually, so we can’t feel too hard done by.”
The question on everyone’s lips back home is how does European rugby stack up as Test match preparation for overseas Wallabies?
“Well, I think the club game in Europe is more demanding physically than Super Rugby and prepares players better for international rugby. There are generally bigger bodies, slower pitches, wet conditions, more bodies competing in contact at the breakdown and much more set piece focus as well as greater tactical and technical appreciation about game management and so on. As a result I think the players are very differently conditioned physically.
“A good example is Kane Douglas. The past few years he would truck out plenty of 80 efforts at the Waratahs, whereas over here his tank is running down at around 60 mins. He says the static bits of scrum, maul and breakdown take much more out of him than he’s used to in Super Rugby. I think he would be in a much better position now, and would be better suited to managing the fine margins and finer details of international Test match rugby after his time here than before he left when he wasn’t really able to consistently nail down a Test spot.
“One of the other big things is the promotion/relegation fear which is in play every week. It definitely hardens the mental side of things. Players are comfortable and used to being in a scrap and can grind out an ugly performance from an arm wrestle. That’s a situation which is a bit unique compared to Super Rugby.”
Speaking as a coach, is the environment similar?
“Oh no, it’s a very different rugby environment. Our middle tier players would grind out 30-35 games a season. The Irish are very passionate and physical and they rip into each other every day out on the pitch. There are not too many issues around self-preservation here. It’s not uncommon for the odd few punches to be thrown at training during an opposed session around the breakdown or during a defence drill leading into a big game. They all want to play, and so they go at each other at training. If it sounds like the wild west, it’s not at all, it’s just a hard passionate culture and it’s the guys with profiles who lead it.
“From a coaching and player development point of view, Super Rugby is very much a sprint event – 16 games over four months – as opposed the long slog up here where some players can play 36 games over 10 months with each match being a very physical encounter.
“On the other hand, I would also say that I think the average Super Rugby player has a better catch-pass skill-set than his northern hemisphere equivalent due to the fact that Super Rugby is played mainly on firm grounds, in dry conditions with less stoppages and less congestion at the tackle/breakdown area compared to this part of the world.”
How do you feel about the new eligibility rules for the Wallabies?
“The ARU has I think got it pretty right with the new policy. I think you need to do your time and earn the right to fly away and cash in. On the caps, I would be more comfortable with them being set at 50 as this number would give you peace of mind that you can call on Will Genia, Quade Cooper, James Horwill, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Digby Ioane and so on if you get skinny down the line.
“I don’t think they should go fully open though. An open overseas policy would hurt the game domestically and seriously compromise the ARU’s ability to generate revenue from a broadcast deal or get bums on seats to watch live games. It would also hurt the ability to lock in commercially with companies in a very competitive market.”
“Chieks [Michael Cheika] is obviously a driver in the new policy, having coached both at Leinster and Stade Francaise. He would recognise and respect the standard of European footy particularly when it comes to the ‘big game’ environment at the the knockout stages of European Cup rugby. Having a few players that are comfortable delivering when the big stadiums are full, with the European atmosphere and the pressure cooker situations – all that is very transferable to Test match footy.”
So, aside from the money, what’s the big attraction of rugby in Europe? It sounds like a lot of hard work?
“Having spoken to our foreigners here at Leinster [Kane Douglas, Ben Te’o, Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kircher among others], it’s obvious that the really good players, once they get to a certain age, are now more attracted to the big bright lights of European rugby. They want to play with the big boys and I feel like they want to play for or against the fashionable and cosmopolitan club teams like Toulon, Toulouse, Racing Metro, Stade Francaise, Leinster, Saracens, Leicester, Bath, Quins and so on. And why wouldn’t they? It’s tremendous footy.
“They also get to play with amazing players from all over the world. Toulon have over 1200 Test caps from just about every top tier country, so what an incredible place to play rugby. Just the experience of having top performers around you every day, and learning from them, not only about rugby, but about their lives, their cultures and so on. It’s a fantastic life experience, especially for Australians who grow up a lot further away than those from the European countries.”
OK thanks Marco, one last question. Who’s in your Wallabies World Cup squad from Europe?
“Well, I can unfortunately tell you first hand that Gits (Matt Giteau) and Drew Mitchell are still absolutely top end performers at Toulon! Drew’s footwork and balance for his try against Clermont in the European Cup final was just first class. I’d also have to mention George Smith who is killing it playing number eight at Lyon. He will go close to the Top 14 Player Of The Year. Personally I would have to find a place for all three in my World Cup squad.”