A Tale of Two European Rugby Cities

Ex England, Bath and Harlequins Centre, current Chairman of EPCR and our Co-Founder, Simon Halliday, shares his latest thoughts on the world of sport over a glass of sporting wine…

A few years ago, I jumped into a taxi in the heart of Paris and the driver looked at me blankly when I asked to go to Racing 92’s rugby ground. No longer, as they now ride high in world club rugby inside a magnificent new stadium La Défense.

Meantime the steady rise of Exeter from a time when Bath only played them midweek with their 2nd team (admittedly 35 years ago) has been inexorable and an inspirational story for the ages. These two gladiators of our game were rightful claimants to the throne of Europe.

It was a European rugby finals weekend of giant proportions to raise the spirits and to celebrate pace, skill, determination and heroism. The reasons why we all play and support this great sport were there in abundance on Saturday in Bristol, and the night before in Aix en Provence when Bristol Bears dramatically and against the odds downed the heavyweights from Toulon. They are rebuilding but in front of a raucous crowd – yes a crowd – it was still a magnificent feat by the West countrymen.

Semi Radradra played out the best midfield performance I have seen for years, and Ben Earl and Max Malins showed why Saracens know how to operate at the top level. They were both awesome, as was the diminutive Harry Randall – if you are good enough you are big enough. Such joy in the win, but humility too as they know this is just the start. They targeted Europe and will reap the benefit.

It was appropriate to be at Bristol the next day and to see whether Chairman Chris Booy’s post-match celebration dancing in France had done any lasting damage. Happily not. The heart ached for 67,000 in sun- drenched Marseille but that is set for 2021 and Ashton Gate did us proud under the circumstances. The nervousness of the Exeter directors was palpable and Jacky Lorenzetti understandably elected to stay with the team in the ‘red zone’, pitch side. A grand total of 30 invitees in a stadium of 30,000 saw the two premier teams in European club rugby do battle and it was a stunning spectacle, worthy of a huge crowd and the tribal atmosphere it would have generated. Political myopia ensured it was not to be even a percentage of that.

Exeter claimed they were not at their best on the day (they still won!) but with respect they were up against a world class array of talent playing at the top of their game. If not for crucial errors and an inability to stop the ‘pick and go’ (untranslatable into French), it could easily have gone the other way. In the last five minutes against a 14-man team, it was try line heroics for Exeter and heartbreak for a Racing team who knew they could have won it at the death. Slade was moved to describe his emotions in terms of pay back from World Cup final defeat. When a top player makes that observation, you know that the Heineken Champions Cup has a unique place in the heart of rugby.

There is no one more passionate than Jacky Lorenzetti and in his third final (after Leinster and Saracens) will have felt that this was their moment. To translate that hurt towards a final in Marseille in 2021 is the challenge. Knowing him, his team and their culture that is a strong likelihood.

Thanks to all for sticking with the tournament for almost 12 months, through suffering and adversity and worse. It has been a time for resilience and hope and to come out the other side. We are not through the problems yet, but that sporting weekend did make us smile and how precious is that.

Until next time,

Lastly, with an England hat on… J Simmonds surely has to start for England soon, with his brother and Jonny Hill in the must have category. Add in Slade and LCD and there is a potent Exeter mix there. Please tell me that Dan Robson will get a go, and of course fellow Wasp Willis on form is a clear favourite. The search for a 12 goes on… and on…and on…