I may not be the most dispassionate commentator, admittedly. But let me propose that by far the highest quality European Cup tournaments since inception have now produced four appropriate finalists in the Grand Stade de Lyon on the weekend of 13 and 14 May. All competitions should, of course, provide this outcome, although romantic notions and drama will also have their place, and this season has been no different.
Aaron Mauger, Leicester Head Coach and ex All-Black, called it the premier club tournament in the world – and he meant both the Champions and Challenge Cup. I do say this with pride, as to be involved in contests where the world’s best players are battling it out is a real thrill. To see empty seats was disappointing, but a two week gap between quarter and semi-final when the clubs identity and venue were unknown makes it tough – global season structure again!
Take Montpellier and Harlequins, brimful with internationals. Their respective semi-finals were a little lacking in intensity and both Newport GD and Grenoble had already done phenomenally well. This was a bridge too far for them against two of the best sides in Europe. You have to say that Montpellier’s South African contingent had plenty of influence on the night and this is why they sit second in the Top 14. They mean business in both competitions, and are targeting a double triumph. Jake White, the coach, knows how to win big games. Harlequins are now multi-national to match their their multicoloured attire, and Jamie Roberts will never run a better line this season than he did in scoring the key try against a plucky but limited Grenoble. Here was a salary cap working in reverse for once as traditionally it is the French who have the deep pockets.
I talked of romance because the neutrals surely wanted the form team in Europe, Wasps, to go all the way. Their escape from Exeter’s clutches in the quarter-finals had begun with stunning back play and the opening try against Saracens in the first minute was top drawer. Christian Wade created it and his outside break in the second half was worth the entrance money on its own. But they could not escape the suffocating pressure of the Saracens wolf pack, bolstered by England’s best forwards – five of them to be precise. Tough to beat when enhanced by the (over) aggressive Farrell and a still effective Brad Barritt. Elliot Daly hardly saw the ball for Wasps and you cannot win big games these days without involving your top players. So the dream was over but Wasps have captured my rugby heart this year and they have much still to play for.
Can Saracens stop Racing? Or do I mean Dan Carter? If I do then Saracens will win easily. The Leicester wannabes who have impressed all year decided to drop almost every ball that mattered at The City Ground, Nottingham. Talk about giving to the rich! Racing were pacy and menacing and their three point win was actually much more emphatic. But they will feel a type of pressure against Sarries In Lyon that simply doesn’t exist in the Top 14. We shall see – Machenaud and Carter are the key with the predatory Imhoff. Saracens feel it is their time but this is a global stage and Racing will have the sun on their backs most likely – and none of the pressure, off field anyway. I cannot call it but if pushed I reckon that the core of the best pack in Europe will probably shade it. Bonne Chance a tous!
I have been watching the way in which referees adjudicate on foul play and the process adopted across the tournaments. There is something badly wrong. For example, there is no consistency. In one match alone there was a thirteen week discrepancy between a similar type of transgression when you could not see exactly what had happened! Players accuse and then withdraw complaints, citing heat of the battle, but that is unacceptable. Social media has already condemned and an apology gets lost. Meantime, different rules apply depending on the nationality involved. Referee and TMO decisions are too often overruled or questioned by the Citing Commissioner. There are moves to address these matters with some urgency and it cannot come soon enough.
I am also extremely concerned about head injuries caused in the tackle. Players have lost their tackling technique in favour of the hit and it is all very dangerous. Tackles above the chest must be outlawed as they cause unacceptable head collisions. How serious an injury do we need to see on the pitch before this is addressed. Also to be outlawed is the ‘clearing out’ at the ruck. Since when was it ok to run at a stationary opponent who is nowhere near the ball and take him out, often brutally. So far we penalise the neck roll only. I am not going soft here, simply protecting player health. I know of the son of an ex-International in his early twenties who cannot drive, even ride a bicycle, wears dark glasses and suffers constant headaches – all from rugby-based collisions. We can all play a part in highlighting this problem – if you don’t like to watch it, which I certainly do not, then make your views known and we can effect change.
To finish on a positive note, we near the end of a terrific season of great rugby and huge achievement. The pinnacle of club success, the European Champions Cup Final in front of a sell out in Lyon, a full house expected at Twickenham for the Premiership Final, the probability of Glasgow in the Pro 12 Final at Murrayfield against an Irish Province which makes it near enough an International, and 98,000 expected at the Nou Camp, Barcelona for the Top 14 French Final. Perhaps a shade off the pace of Rugby World Cup prowess, but nonetheless enough rugby tribalism to whet anyone’s appetite.