There is something very gratifying about the presence of Saracens, Exeter, Connacht and Leinster in this year’s Premiership and Pro 12 Finals
Each team has their own story to tell and not all are predictable. For a sport that had started to play by numbers, certainly in the Northern Hemisphere, here are some wonderfully uplifting tales of the unexpected.
I first saw Connacht play last year in the play offs for the Champions Cup place against Gloucester. They played with great pace and maturity well beyond their years and were extremely unlucky not to win an end to end thriller. In marking them down as a team to follow under the watchful and intense gaze of their outstanding coach Pat Lam, I was not surprised to see them start so strongly in the Pro 12. Unfancied, underfunded and largely unrepresented by internationals, they have continued their form domestically and in Europe. A bonding experience in Siberia, where they played Enisei in air temperatures of more than -20 degrees, seemed to set the tone of resilience. They missed out in the quarter-final stage of the Challenge Cup against Grenoble but came within an ace of a sensational upset, playing attacking rugby of the top order. Having beaten previous champions Glasgow twice back to back, they will love the chance to topple their historically senior cousins from Leinster. In many ways, Connacht are already the team of the season and are living the dream – a Leicester City equivalent in the making. Big bucks don’t always pay off with results – the Irish media feels negative and cynical about their teams’ prospects because of financial imbalances; they should reappraise!
Leinster have come through so strongly in the latter part of the season, led almost entirely by their youngsters. They have countered significant negative events such as the retirement of world class operators O’Driscoll and Gordon Darcy, and then injuries to key Internationals such as Sean O’Brien. They almost drowned in their crazily tough European pool, up against Wasps, Toulon and Bath. But a youthful victory over a full strength Bath team showed that their pipeline has been well nurtured. They have dealt with the adversity and the expectation and now here they are; what an adventure for them and it’s great for all competitions that a strong Leinster squad is emerging from a transition period that has lasted a mere season, if that. They will be favourites in Murrayfield for the Pro 12 final, if only for the likes of Sexton and Heaslip on board, but I feel that it is too close to call simply because Connacht have nothing to lose and at the same time possess real quality.
While Wasps captured my rugby heart with their sensational performances this season, and have players who make the pulse race, there cannot be a prouder rugby city in England than Exeter. So many plaudits have come their way and I won’t repeat the admiration, simply add my name. I have spent some time with the Exeter management team and they are the epitome of local gone global. Rob Baxter has developed a raft of England qualified players who have progressed through the academy and conducted a shrewd acquisition of experienced hands from home and away. What has changed through the season is the level of grounded confidence. That means to say that they have managed to graft their local pride, loyalty and mutual trust onto their undoubted ability to perform at the highest level. Getting past Wasps was a huge challenge in terms of managing the pressure they now feel as a team. It was they who could summon the focus to make the vital play in the last two minutes of the match. They go to Twickenham with no fear but little experience of such an occasion.
Perhaps the name of Saracens does not fit well with the above stories. However, theirs is a tale of continual development punctuated by setbacks and frustration. Nigel Wray has been at it for 20 years and been down many dark alleyways where it seems that Saracens could never break into the elite. Having experimented with overseas imports (remember Sella, Pienaar, Lynagh, Castagnede) and a strong South Africa connection we now have the model club which looks after players on and off the field. A strict rotation policy ensured player satisfaction, and a strong investment in their academy has rivalled Harlequins and Exeter in their success. I have also been impressed with their style of play. Ruthless efficiency in Lyon smothered the stars of Racing 92, yet their attacking strategies took Leicester apart in the first half of the semi-final and no doubt surprised them. Their style critics should take another look. There is also a hint of the top England players starting to adopt a performance level which constantly sets them apart and offers real leadership. Leicester in fact gave them plenty to think about and have to continue their development. They will aspire to the Saracens ethos as will every other Premiership club because it is not only successful but sustainable. Eddie Jones will undoubtedly harvest the strength of both Exeter and Saracens in this regard for England’s cause.
I wish all four the very best, and in every one of these potential winners there is a wonderful story where they couldn’t have dreamt of such an outcome. Let’s hope they can prompt their tired legs to produce fantastic finals.
Thoughts of the week
England v Wales this weekend presents a wonderful one off opportunity at a time of year when many people think the Six Nations should be played. We could see a thriller, unencumbered by the pressure of tournament. Many England players will be making a statement of intent and the Welsh want to bloody the English nose, the score this season is one-all! The strongest Welsh team to visit New Zealand for many a year would like some momentum, and Eddie Jones wants his English team to get in the face of the Australians. This is the longest season imaginable after the Rugby World Cup (the French still have one month to go!), but all the players will be right up for this, make no mistake.
Two fun facts
1/ Seen who is dominating Super Rugby? The New Zealand teams are way ahead of everyone else, giving more credence to the thought that they are playing at a different level to anyone else in the game right now. Players I have never heard of pop up looking world class. No wonder Eddie Jones wants three world class options in every position!
2/ Competition in the England centre remains hot even without Tuilagi. A good thing of course but whoever gets the nod will notice that Australia’s star player, Israel Folau, is playing outside centre in Super Rugby as well as full back and looks a real handful. Watch out for one of the world’s best broken play runners!