When great champions meet it is the event we remember. While the outcome is always hugely significant, it is the drama of these contests that stays with us long after the celebrations or commiserations are forgotten.
Five decades after the events, the themes of two great heavyweight boxing contests titled The Thrilla in Manila and Rumble in the Jungle remain part of the sporting lexicon. When Muhammad Ali clashed with legendary greats Joe Frazier and George Foreman, events that crossed the generations were created.
“It will be a killa and a thrilla, when I get that gorilla, in Manila.” Ali’s legendary skills inside the ring combined with his poetry and showmanship outside it, created a unique athletic and political figure who spanned the global stage.
“O’Garas greats, will go out the gate, ‘cause Leo’s Lions are made of Iron…”
Or ”The Black Gold will never fold, against the Blue, who haven’t a clue.”
Apologies Muhammad. Perhaps I should stick to scrums. Mine doesn’t quite rank alongside, “I Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, cause your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”
After all, he was the greatest.
Perhaps if we channeled the spirit, accent, delivery and dramatic timing of the legendary American boxing commentator Howard Cosell, in imitating one of his pre-bout monologues, when he called those epic Ali encounters, we could say…
“La Rochelle, the defending champions, the pride of France, are not in a good place. In their opening rounds, they have been struggling to find cohesion. The usual flow is just not there. We can all witness the effort and desire but their trademark punch and accuracy, seem, like a vineyard in drought, to have dried out and shrivelled.
“While we all know what this team has been capable of in the past, the hardest of questions must be asked. Is the desire, the drive, the hunger to fight and triumph still inside this disjointed black and gold team? Or is La Rochelle so far out of sorts that even the power of their legendary and flamboyant mentor, Ronan O’Gara, will not be able to lift this champion team back to a level that could see them overcome their bitter rivals?
“Standing in the blue corner are the challengers. They appear to be more hungry and focused. Yet in the very front of their minds is the fact that they have been humiliated by the French side two years in a row. After trailing in both finals for over 90 per cent of the time, somehow, the black and gold found a way to overcome their Irish opponent. Leaving Leinster angered and frustrated. So they remain the challenger.
“This bout will be held on the home soil of the champions, Stade Marcel Deflandre. As the challengers enter the arena, they will notice two very large stars, firmly fastened high on the outside wall of the main grandstand. The winning symbols of La Rochelle’s triumphs over Leinster in the previous two epic Champions Cup finals.
“That has got to hurt the challenger.
“So the blue team once again has the unlikely opportunity to gain both redemption and revenge, yet to write off the champions is a dangerous task. In the legendary words of the former Irish-American world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, whom I often quote, ‘Champions get up when they can’t’. And La Rochelle are a champion team.
“A classic awaits.”
Gotta love Howard Cosell.
Except, this contest is not for a belt or a trophy. Bragging rights are all that is up for grabs. Back in the day when the Heineken Cup Pool stages were based on merit, the winner of such a gigantic pool game would gain the satisfaction of knowing they had virtually assured that they had condemned the loser to miss the quarter-finals.
Now, under the motto of Greed is Good, the deeply flawed round of 16 all but guarantees that any thoughts of the pool stages being a meritocracy have been sacrificed at the altar of the almighty Euro. The vanquished from this pool match, the rerun of last year’s final, will survive and get their hands on loads of money because the current format of the pool rounds is close to meaningless. Two wins can get your team into the round of 16.
While the recent World Cup has disjointed both teams, it appears to be La Rochelle who have been the most affected by the unsettled nature of the opening months of the club season. However, do not allow that to delude yourself into believing that Les Rochelais are no longer capable of greatness. One thing I have learned from watching Ronan O’Gara’s thoughtful coaching over the past three years is that La Rochelle starts every season slow and finishes strong.
Keeping that in mind, that tournaments are not won in December but they can be lost by Christmas, La Rochelle need to get their season back on track. Meeting their old foe in round one of the pool stages may be just the motivation they need to find their mojo.
Even with Johnny Sexton becoming the newest member of Leinster’s former players’ association, the men in blue look to be in better form at this stage of the season. However, I said the same thing before both of the previous Champions Cup finals and was proved wrong.
The reality is that both clubs have great teams but there can be only one winner. As it has been in the past and looks to continue, the contest between these two heavyweight champions will be as close as it gets.