As we approach such an historic weekend, whether you are a royalist or no, I shall lace my comments with a relentless sense of optimism, even if it sometimes very hard in this great game of rugby.
One of my top European rugby memories was Toulouse v Clermont in Lyon at the quarter final stage of the Champions Cup some years ago. It was a blaze of colour, blues and yellows, a cacophony of sound from two hours pre match until the final whistle which hit a crescendo as Clermont pipped a gallant Leinster by a few points. A contest of such quality, it really was an International played out in club Jerseys. Thus, it was in both Bordeaux and Dublin last weekend.
Steve Borthwick talked about the last 20 minutes being beyond his England team for endurance and fitness. Well, the first 60 minutes matters more, because you have to be in the fight rather than already crushed e.g., Twickenham 2022 England v France. So, it was here when both La Rochelle and Toulouse stamped their supreme class on Exeter Chiefs and Toulouse in the first hour. For the latter, they were effectively playing the Irish Test team who were performing like it – not even the magical Dupont, Ntamack, Ramos could stem the tide. For Exeter Chiefs, La Rochelle do have weaknesses as Gloucester proved, but they simply don’t experience that intensity in the Premiership and were blown away by having to defend fast forwards offloading like backs. As our most recent European champions, I prefer to applaud them for their courage in defeat, the passing of the wonderful old guard and Rob Baxter’s early moves to create the next dynasty.
Can you separate these final two in Dublin? And with O’Gara mischievously plotting a rerun of last year’s triumph? Don’t bet against them, I shall be there dispassionate but in glorious anticipation. To emphasise how strong the club scene in Europe is, in the Challenge Cup Final, effectively a Scottish International team in Glasgow will fancy themselves against a Toulon side which has such history but possibly not the premium quality these days. However, the Top 14 is such high quality that they could play at a level which even tests a Glasgow side that themselves just squeezed past a heroic Scarlets team at the Parc.
Meantime, we crowned the Red Roses for another grand slam triumph but in the raucous surrounds of a noisy Twickenham, and now a World tournament announcement has followed. It’s a great advance for the women’s game. Congratulations to all in the English game who have contributed to such a success story. As for the failure to appoint a female coach especially with a home World Cup in prospect, and there was an outstanding candidate they ignored, I refer you to Sir Clive Woodward’s piece in the media which summed it up.
Meantime back in the darkness, the potential travails of a third broken Premiership rugby club (London Irish) was being played out in the media. We can take a breath and imagine it is the darkest hour before the dawn and the relentless optimist in me then emerges. Some American friends to the rescue we hope, with deep pockets and long horizons. But it doesn’t fix the problem.
The third Carolean Era starts tomorrow, and itself heralds a time of optimism. Let us pray that it extends into our beautiful game.
God Save the King.