Whatever you want to say about the Rugby World Cup last year and the stunning matches along the way, noone remembers the losing finalist.
Unless you are an Englishman on your home turf and you blow a chance to be World Champions like we did in 1991! So we all acknowledge this year’s winners in the European Champions and Challenge Cup – Saracens and Montpellier. Take a bow!
We witnessed some stunning performances in Europe this year – Wasps whipping Toulon in the pool stages, Exeter slapping a bonus point win on Clermont and then in turn taking a 40 point thumping in the return fixture, the Connacht / Grenoble classic in the Challenge Cup quarters, Wasps again in the dramatic late win over Exeter at the same stage in the Champions Cup. The list goes on.
However, the four undoubted stand out teams arrived in Lyon for the Challenge Cup and Champions Cup Final. It was a proud moment for both Harlequins and Saracens, two clubs with huge European aspirations. Tragic therefore that the Quins had suffered the loss of one of their brightest young stars in a car accident earlier in the week. However you try to put that behind you it could not have been easy and the stadium stood in rightful silence to acknowledge the loss of a rugby talent and by all accounts an inspirational human being. The match itself would be decided on whether they could bring their all-court running game into play. They couldn’t. It required their best players to have the game of their lives, but Danny Care, Mike Brown and Jamie Roberts were squeezed out of the game by the powerful Montpellier defence. A team riding high in the top 14 was in no mood to let the Quins run free. Crunching tackles all over the park and given a South African twist, bearing in mind the make up of the team – five Springboks in the pack and a robust centre to say the least in Francois Steyn – still capable of Test rugby without doubt.
Nearly 29,000 came to watch at the Grand Stade de Lyon and while not a classic this was a heavyweight clash and shows how far the Challenge Cup has developed. You had to be really really good to win it this year and Montpellier would have definitely been in the mix in the Champions Cup!
Their peers, Racing 92, then tried to emulate them against the Saracens the following night in front of a sell out crowd of 59,000. Like the Quins they knew they had to mix the game up and play with verve and wit or else the Saracens would also squeeze the life out of them. To the disappointment of the massive and vocal French support, the loss through injury of Machenaud, Carter and Dumoulin made the task almost impossible. They had their moments but neither of their two international wings, Imhoff and Rokocoko, could get into the game. A brave and limited performance in the end, but they will be back. Jackie Lorenzetti, their colourful and inspirational owner, will make sure of that.
What of the newly crowned champions? The Saracens are some way ahead of most of their English competition, but Exeter and Wasps are on their heels. The culmination of an English plan to get back to the top table in Europe has played out successfully. Most of their players are English qualified, and they have that essential relationship of trust and loyalty on and off the field. All the best sides have it, and when Stuart Barnes compares their club ethos with Bath, the amateur champions of England for so many years, it is the highest possible compliment for the same qualities in a different era. I can attest to that.
You had to admire their intensity and will to win. Two losing semifinals and a final in the last four years have made them hardbitten and hungry. They could be at the top table for a while as they are young and seem to have the ambition to boot, an insatiable appetite to win and be the best. Back to Bath, who won ten national knock out cups pretty much in a row, driven by the same desires. Lastly, Sarries has a national team representation which bodes well for the future and will have put a smile on the face of Eddie Jones.
This is what it takes to be European Champions and let next year’s contenders take note – oh and I missed one other essential rugby quality. Humility.
PS Thought of the week – Bill Beaumont and Augustin Pichot,new Heads of World Rugby, have declared that the global season structure is their top priority.Quite right and I add to that the disciplinary process.Get the right people around the table and both issues will be sorted out eventually.If they don’t then I shall still be writing about them in three years time! More anon.