I was spoilt for choice last weekend; which final was it to be – Twickenham or Murrayfield? I chose the Pro 12 Final at the home of Scottish Rugby because I have been enthused by the tournament all year.
Frankly, I also felt that Saracens have been head and shoulders above everyone else and there was an element of predictability about that one. Also, both our European finals take place in Edinburgh next year so I wanted to taste the atmosphere of a top contest there!
It is still a weird experience to be invited as a guest when over the years as a player I have arrived to a storm of hostility on and off the field and every game was a draining experience against the ‘Auld Enemy’. Murrayfield is also walking distance from the City Centre and I hadn’t worked out how much it is part of the fabric of this famous old city. Having two Irish teams contest the final would be an unusual experience, and everyone (except the men in Green and Blue) was bemoaning the last minute failure of Glasgow to defend their title. A superb run in the second half of the season floundered upon the rock-like defence of Connacht in the playoffs.
The first time I ever watched Connacht was last year against Gloucester in a play off for a place in the Champions Cup. They impressed me right away, albeit in eventual defeat. Sharp and inventive, real clarity and the best ball was moved rapidly through space looking for openings. Forwards were not used as battering rams and they were frankly a pleasure to watch. Happily, nothing had changed and it has been good enough to see off all their Celtic rivals, either with or without their World Cup stars.
From the off, they tore into Leinster at a pace which caused no end of concern for the Dublin heavyweights and their sleight of hand had people on their feet in applause. I particularly liked McGinty, who made Sexton look like a novice, with his deft passing and long cut outs putting runners into space. The Connacht back three had acres of room, with their midfield and often their second row providing the key ball. What a contrast to the leaden-footed Leinster. Only Wasps and Exeter have achieved such heights across Europe this year (yes, Europe). They were a throwback to bygone times of Channel 1 Ball from the scrum and away to explore the wide channels. Three great tries later and a breathless match when they kicked only once – which was charged down – and the Pro 12 Trophy was aloft. I stood in awe of this great team of believers and wondered why more of them weren’t on a plane to South Africa.
Connacht are on half the budget of their senior provinces as allocated by the Irish Rugby Union, but I suspect that may change sometime soon!
Meanwhile, the Premiership Final went the way many predicted. Saracens are comfortably the best team in Europe and have set the benchmark. The Chiefs will come again, they are young ,talented and have a Connacht-style belief. But Saracens are no Leinster and they look like they could dominate for years to come.
And so to England Wales for the Old Mutual Wealth Cup which filled Twickenham and produced a nice end of season bonus for all, ahead of an unimaginably tough three test series in Australia. One area of concern for Eddie Jones as he plans his next stage of returning England to the world’s top table is, again, the midfield. A poor game from Henry Slade on the Saturday could be a one off, as could Ford’s poor kicking performance. But the new boy Ben Te’o looks well short of International class and with Tuilagi again injured these are worrying times. Daly is still on the outside looking in and possibly suffering the first signs of self doubt as Jones chooses to let him watch rather than play, while no one will surely suggest that England can win a World Cup with Farrell at 12. FInally, I am delighted for Burrell who suffered from the Burgess debacle and now assumes his rightful place in the squad. Lets see, it’s still early days and Jonathon Joseph is due to step up; no better place than the hard grounds of the RWC runners up, Australia.
There will be no shortage of banter from Eddie and the Aussie press will love it!
Thought of the week
Law changes will now penalise diving and feigning injury – no football influences here and quite right! I hope that World Rugby will soon penalise aggressively clearing out at rucks and head tackles, which are the cause of so much concussion. Many efforts are being made to analyse the long-term impact which is all well and good. Players of my generation are apparently being asked whether they are suffering any ill effects and there will no doubt be some interesting answers from some of them! Joking apart, that is the single biggest issue for rugby today and we need to hunt out the causes as well as treat the effects.