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La Rochelle live the European dream

La Rochelle live the European dream

La Rochelle is steeped in history, whether back to the days of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th century or indeed to the presence of the Huguenots in the 17th. A thriving but small Maritime port was never supposed to carry off the Blue Riband trophy in club rugby, although try telling that to Toulon!

The passion of their supporters and the incredible scenes in La Rochelle itself as the team returned yesterday simply show the power of rugby to affect people’s lives in such a positive way. A happy squad with connected supporters, genuinely the 16th player. It calls to mind the massed ranks of Bath, Leicester, Munster and Cornwall who over the years have followed their teams around the country or Europe.

Some in high office in England were questioning the European tournaments especially when the new agreement was being discussed. As Chairman, I found it unfathomable, and these two finals in a steamy Marseille should have proved to all how critical this level is to International success – it is after all International rugby in club jerseys.

It was said that the French were also ambivalent, but that has proved to be a giant spoof. Their dominance over the last two years sees them bouncing into World Cup year on a high and it is not all about money. The focus on their academies and French qualified players has paid dividends and it has been coming for a few years now. Overseas players are used selectively and with a distinct objective to help improve the youngsters.

The same goes for the Irish, as Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all capable of success in this competition, based on their home-grown focus which was a key strategy implemented some 5 years ago.

It was stunning in Marseille to see how La Rochelle forced Leinster into seeking penalties and unraveled their attacking game. Nobody had challenged Leinster at their strength and they had no answer. Interesting to know how Lancaster was looking at the picture unfolding in front of him. The great Bath teams when facing strong opposition always attacked their core strength and this tactic mostly worked. Grand Chapeau to O’Gara who had done his homework and is now the hottest property in coaching.

As an Englishman, and less constrained to speculate as when European chairman,  what will the response be of the English clubs? Will/can they replicate the deliberate changes put in place in France and Ireland? I know that the Saracens have always recognised the value and Leicester are coming again. Harlequins took a pounding at home with a weakened team against Racing 92 a couple of years ago and realised the folly of ignoring Europe so you can add them to the list. Exeter after their stunning domestic and European double will surely rise again. In general, the wonderful play evident in the Premiership should help build the standard. It is cyclical as the French and Irish have proved. But it takes a collective will even with all the resource England possess, and some smart combined strategy to build the pathways to sustained excellence. I am not currently convinced.

Meantime, three rather powerful South African teams join the fray, and the new Champions Cup will assume even higher standards so there is no time to lose. Beyond that the accolade of the greatest club in the world awaits and at present only the brooding Saracens can look up with any aspiration, founded on their conveyor belt of domestically developed talent.

What a weekend’s rugby – go find a video clip of the port at La Rochelle yesterday and you will experience a shiver of admiration at the love and adoration of a town for its rugby team. Magnifique!

Read more of Simon Halliday’s blogs HERE.

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