Anyone who didn’t see the Waikato Chiefs squeeze past the Auckland Blues in a breathtaking display of open rugby should find the replay in a hurry. I felt it was the best game of rugby I had seen for many a year until I went to the Ricoh Stadium on Saturday for the Wasps Exeter Champions Cup Quarter Final. Stephen Jones, the eminent Sunday Times rugby correspondent, described it as the best club match he’d ever seen.
Others said it was Super Rugby with tackling – what nonsense! Wherever you are in the world, if you play at pace you find space and opportunities to line break – something we saw little of in the Six Nations and only from the Northern Hemisphere in the Rugby World Cup.
What is certain, however, is that the quarter finals of both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup were immensely uplifting, and of course I am biased! The stunning denouement of the pool stages with Exeter’s sensational win versus the Ospreys and Clermont’s agonising – and to an extent self-inflicted – defeat against Bordeaux would normally have been enough for racing heart rates and eyes squeezed shut. But the first round of knock out stages proved to be no less dramatic.
Firstly, we had the unusual sight of a French club coming to North West England on a Friday night meaning business. Sale hadn’t lost at home for a year and knew that a Challenge Cup trophy would take them into Europe’s premier competition regardless of domestic competition. They played with great pace and skill, led by Cipriani. I have now had a chance to see a lot of Danny, and he is the most talented flyhalf in England – which does not make him the best. But to think that Northampton’s Myler was ranked above him by Lancaster. His virtuoso display was not enough – Montpellier are second in the Top 14 and for good reason. They played with great discipline and out-powered the Sale pack. Their eyes are set on the Lyon Final assuming they can get past their unlikely opponents Newport Gwent Dragons, who have shown that you do not need a cheque book to overpower better funded teams. A lowly position in the Pro 12 means that their season rests on a smash and grab win in France, but I suspect that not even an inspired Faletau will prove quite enough.
Paying tribute to Exeter comes easily this season. Their continued excellence in the Premiership, the conclusive bonus point win against Clermont, a stunning defeat of the Ospreys which catapulted them into the quarter finals, five England squad players all developed through their academy and a coaching team fast becoming the envy of Europe – and English!! Where does it come from? A culture of team, hard work, local loyalty and trust have been fostered over a number of years. I have met Tony Rowe and his committee a number of times. They are united on and off the field which makes progress so much faster.
However, it was not enough against a Wasps team who almost forgot that pace, power and ambition have made them the stand out team in Europe. Exeter’s supremely well organised squad ushered them into mistakes, kicking too much and working themselves into an arm wrestle. After one hour, Elliot Daly got the ball for the first time, under his posts and almost in the crowd. His 60 yard break changed the game; Christian Wade actually got the ball in his hands and the final 20 minutes was as good a period as any we saw in the World Cup. Lastly, anyone who has not seen Thomas Young before should not forget his name. His performance was game-changing and likely to push him into national contention.
The semi final between Wasps and Saracens in the Majedski on 23 April will be the highlight in a crowded season – who can forget the 60 points conceded at Allianz Park (admittedly when many of the Saracen’s English contingent were away)? Nonetheless, it was a stunning performance and the Sarries will want payback as well to achieve their ambition to win the Cup.
By contrast to the drama in Coventry, Racing 92 v Toulon was a tight and heavyweight affair. Not easy when your owner predicts you will lose, and sure enough it was the boot of Carter which was more reliable than those of the Toulon kickers, which proved the difference. The total of more than a thousand International caps on the field shows how far the French club scene has changed. There are changes in the air to foster a better pathway for French players to their National team – not before time. However, this will not prevent the continued growth of the big clubs and anyone who has seen the new Racing 92 stadium being built in the Financial district of Paris will understand that this will continue apace. A club owner was predicting to me very confidently that a club Super League was inevitable – more of that some other time… and no it wasn’t Mourad Boujellal!!
Whether Dan Carter and his multinational team mates can overcome an equally diverse Leicester Tigers in the City of Nottingham is a moot point. Their two men in the spotlight at Welford Road on Saturday were a Fijian and Australian, rather than a Dean Richards-esque local, which captures a theme. This, added to their strong contingent of English stars, may prove too much in addition to a new found playing style which is very easy on the eye. Already Racing 92 are exploring new territory by contesting a semi final and this may inspire them but it is a longer shot than they would like.
From an English point of view, the way in which the top teams are performing bodes very well on a number of levels. The overriding impression is of an ever increasing quality in contrast to a rather drab Six Nations and perhaps the National coaches will take a leaf from club books and loosen up a little!
A footnote to finish – the final stages of the Pro 12 look to be full of drama with one or two big names possibly missing Champions Cup qualification through being out of the Top 6. Munster, Ospreys and Ulster will be pulling out all the stops in the next few weeks. It will make for a fascinating denouement, at the same time as watching Bath trying to win all their remaining games to squeeze in through the Premiership back door.
No sign of a Brexit strategy in British Rugby!
Thought for the week
The disciplinary world is in a mess at present. World Rugby, Six Nations and EPCR has to get together to find some common ground. Referees, TMO, Citing Commissioner, Gatekeeper, Judicial Officers all have their role, alongside inevitable media coverage. It is not working at present and needs to be fixed. Watch that space!