Why this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals are still worth watching
Leinster and Ulster are out but for once club rugby could take advantage of a quiet week
Toulouse and South Africa winger Cheslin Kolbe is one of world rugby’s most exciting players. File photograph: Getty Images
Occasionally it is worth pausing for a moment and asking why people prefer to watch certain team sports compared to others.
Football, for example, is easy to understand and truly global, its club game often more gripping and higher quality than its international counterpart. Cricket works well on television and has a range of formats to suit all tastes. Rugby – union and league – can be more compelling than either but is nowhere near as good at displaying the best of itself on a consistent basis.
Partly it is cultural preference. Unlike in, say, American football where the top quarter-backs are as prominent as Hollywood A-listers, rugby prefers to be seen as more about the team than the individual. All very admirable, until Joe Neutral switches on his television or laptop, surveys the team sheet and struggles to find a solitary name he recognises. England’s most high-profile union players right now, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, can still roam unhindered through central St Albans.
In some ways this is part of rugby’s charm. No one wants the players to become even more remote and distant than they are already, with the occasional exception of those with books to promote. But, as mentioned before in these pages, there remains a powerful sense that rugby could sell itself better. Putting more bums on seats might not be practicable in this Covid-19 era but more bums on sofas is the next best thing.
If I was a real marketing hotshot this would be the week I would pick to transform idle perceptions of the sport. If we are being honest, rugby union is still waiting to unearth a global superstar to rival the late, great Jonah Lomu, who last played for the All Blacks almost 20 years ago.
On Saturday it just so happens the only Premier League game involving a pair of top-six teams is Crystal Palace v Everton. Nor is there an unmissable schedule of racing or golf, while the weather is a potential threat to the final of the Bob Willis Trophy at Lord’s, and there’s no intercounty GAA action yet either. The field is unusually clear this weekend and, for once, club rugby is well placed to take advantage.
Because, trust me, the Champions Cup semi-finals between Racing 92 and Saracens and Exeter and Toulouse could provide the best day’s rugby in this whole sadly-disrupted calendar year. The biggest club fixtures in Europe can be as intense and emotionally demanding as many Test matches and here are two prime Anglo-French examples, perfectly poised to puncture the myth that international rugby is the only show in town.
Take Racing, who are basically Paris Saint-Germain on acid. They play ridiculously entertaining rugby in their other-worldly indoor home, La Defénse, with their Scottish outhalf wizard Finn Russell mischievously wielding the baton. Saracens, meanwhile, are the continent’s favourite villains, fresh from one of the great European away heists at Leinster last Saturday. Farrell will still be suspended but Itoje, the world’s outstanding forward by almost any measure, will be there, mixing it with a massive home pack clad in fetching pale blue and white. Seldom will so much irresistible force share the same field with so many immovable objects.
And then, with the whiff of Parisian cordite still fresh, it will be off to Devon where the hard-edged rural backwoodsmen of Exeter will be attempting to stick it up their aristocratic guests from Stade Toulousain, France’s other dazzling musketeers. The Chiefs are seeking to clinch their first European final appearance, having featured in the second-tier Championship only a decade ago.
Cheslin Kolbe, whose footwork would make even the elusive Jason Robinson jealous, versus the redoubtable Cornish winger Jack Nowell, Stuart Hogg leaving vapour trails in the back field, Luke Cowan-Dickie charging headfirst at anyone mad enough to stand in his way . . . it should be some spectacle. Anyone who thinks the outcome is a foregone conclusion is underestimating just how badly Rob Baxter and his Chiefs squad want to hoist some silverware.
There are all kinds of other subplots, too. The Springboks were worthy World Cup winners last year and three of the four semi-finalists boast a South African who was man of the match last weekend. Will Vincent Koch stop Eddy Ben Arous – and thus Racing – at source in the scrums as happened to Leinster? Will the electric Kolbe be short-circuited by the relentless physical commitment of Exeter’s Jacques Vermeulen? Could Saracens and the Chiefs, on opposite sides of the bitter Premiership salary cap argument, really collide with an almighty smack in next month’s final? For those normally disinclined to watch club rugby – or clear space for it on the back page – this may just be the week to reconsider.
Soon enough, a side from the Premiership or Top 14 will have conquered Europe for the seventh year out of eight. It will be an uncomfortable stat to swallow for everyone associated with the Pro14.
The European Challenge Cup has also reached the semi-final stage, with Bristol playing Bordeaux-Bègles on Friday and Toulon hosting Leicester on Saturday. Had these fixtures been played on their originally scheduled dates, Bristol would currently be working out how to stop Bordeaux’s formidable Fijian Semi Radradra. Now, to their immense good fortune, the big man is playing for the Bears. Stand by for a Semi final without a hyphen. - Guardian