French to provide the fizz
December looks set to be a crunch month for the Irish provinces and the likely French contenders who pack a serious punch writes GERRY THORNLEY
THE ARROGANT demands, tactics and pronouncements of the English clubs and their agent provocateur Mark McCafferty, coupled with the ensuing threat posed to the future of the Heineken Cup beyond 2014 (for the English have form here, whatever about on the pitch) add a slight sense of foreboding to the upcoming blue riband of European club rugby.
But it may also be a timely reminder as to how valuable the tournament is to the European game and help to sharpen an old historical edge to some fixtures; especially Anglo/Celtic ones.
Rather than lament the supposed inequalities of the supposedly easy-going Rabo Direct Pro12 as against their own magnificent, ultra-competitive Premiership and Top 14, the English and French club owners in particular might reflect that for years it was the very presence of relegation which supposedly heightened their competitive edge and made their league such a superior stepping stone to conquering Europe.
The reality is that the Irish provinces in particular have just become a little smarter in their player management.
It really is a bit rich of the wealthier French clubs to demand a greater slice of the ERC cake so they can supplement their heavily laden squads with yet more acquisitions from abroad. Or that the Celts should pay for the French clubs’ own expansionist tendencies as they prioritise their Top 14; swelling its numbers from 12 to 14 and adding in an additional round of matches.
Truly it’s hard to know what to make of the French. Castres, Montpellier and Racing hardly look primed for an assault on Europe, all the more so after Racing yesterday confirmed their decision to replace Gonzalo Quesada at the end of the season, only a couple of months after he had taken over from Pierre Berbizier. It seems a bizarre way to run a club, but then the Top 14 is something of a circus.
The nouveau riche Toulon would clearly love a Bouclier de Brennus but are so lavishly assembled that even cocking a snoot at Europe they could still win it. Bernard Laporte asked for a stronger hand this season and, with more than 25 internationals at his disposal, and Dannie Roussouw the latest addition to be confirmed last week, duly has one, courtesy of the high profile, highly ambitious benefactor Mourad Boudjellal. A brash, bullish, ruthlessly confrontational side at the breakdown, they can swap entire match day 15s and still progress to both le barrage and the H Cup knock-out stages.
Indeed, with budgets that dwarf their main competitors, it’s not as if Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont aren’t all seemingly destined for the knock-out stages of the Top 14, as has been the case for the latter two for aeons. When one reflects on Clermont’s narrow loss to Leinster in last season’s semi-finals, it’s worth noting Vern Cotter was able to rest virtually his entire front-line XV the week beforehand.