Broken dreams for champions cup semifinalists
The brutality of semifinals is that no one remembers the loser. However, for Saracens, Wasps, Toulouse and Racing 92 there were many mitigating circumstances. In two cases, Leinster and Toulon were simply too good and those matches in Dublin and on the Cote Méditerranée will live in the memory for their drama, excitement and sheer class, mixed with a good dose of tribalism. The Toulouse players, after all their club and international success, looked a little fatigued, short of one or two key names (not least the departed Cheslin Kolbe lest we forget) and as we know the Top 14 is an energy-sapping league. Which is also the reason behind the current strength of French rugby. Meantime Leinster with a double squad looked rather well-rested and are hot favourites for Marseille. James Lowe was clearly the player of the match!
For Lyon, I could not be more pleased for them and their loyal President Yann Roubert. He captures the qualities of a modern-day administrator perfectly with a really good rugby perspective and what a final ahead against their arch rivals. Wasps have some wonderful young players who graced the occasion and they will come again, wonderful to watch, huge team spirit and after all it was only two points difference at the end against a gargantuan Lyon team.
Racing 92 hold a place in my heart, not least because of my relationship with Jacky Lorenzetti through Sporting Wine Club. Hit before the start by two significant player withdrawals, they were up against a La Rochelle team who took immediate advantage and condemned Racing into an arm wrestle.Try as they might they could not escape. Had the players forgotten the rules or was there another reason for 30 penalties, that’s one every minute for ball in playtime and gives no chance to a side which likes to play ball in hand? However, La Rochelle will travel with optimism and a passionate following to Marseille despite being overwhelming underdogs. Leinster will not forget losing to them last year and have all that International pressure-based success to see them through. Appropriate to the times the stadium will be awash with yellow and blue. The clamour for Lancaster will grow…….
What of the English club game against this backdrop? In 2015 I visited Dublin to get to know the Irish provinces as the new EPCR chairman. They had no representative in the last 8 of the Champions Cup and the media were questioning the outlook for Irish rugby. I was fixed with a steely glare and told that this was a blip, the academies were churning out great talent and we just had to wait a while. I loved the response, and there is no stronger base in world rugby now than Ireland, driven by great coaching and structures. We will soon find out if the English clubs have laid similar foundations.
Lastly, most Englishmen of my era learnt their rugby in Wales and we are all saddened by the challenges there. I remember in my latter days at the RFU that the clubs had simply to stand up to the Union to preserve their position in the face of actions which did not serve the interests of rugby in this country and various administrators were shown the door. Happily, things are very different these days, but Welsh rugby has much to ponder right now.
Meantime a tumultuous weekend in sunny Marseille awaits – what a location. The World Cup quarter-final weekend there in 2007 was off the charts brilliant and this will be no different.
Read more of Simon Halliday’s blogs HERE.