Gordon D’Arcy: Sexton helped build winning culture at Racing
Ireland outhalf laid the runway for Dan Carter’s smooth landing in Paris
Two years after the power struggle to rule European rugby, where the English and French clubs so obviously prevailed, what are we left with? This.
The restructured and rebranded Champions Cup semi-finals were played out in front of thousands of empty seats at soccer grounds.
Saturday’s game between Saracens and Racing 92 in Lyon is being called a 59,000 sell-out but all major sporting finals find a way to sell-out.
Those semi-final attendances tell us more about the dangers of tinkering with a successful tournament model. Only 16,820 Saracens and Wasps fans travelled one hour up the M4 to Reading’s Madejski Stadium (capacity 24,161) while 22,148 mostly Leicester supporters took the short hop to Nottingham to witness Dan Carter’s victorious Racing 92 (the City Ground holds 30,455).
Granted, times have changed. I understand why the English and French seized control of European rugby: because they knew they could.
Aggressively taking their full market share was a logical move but that does not explain why qualifying from the pool stage was made even more difficult. It was already a vicious task to find a way into the last eight but in this post-World Cup season it became virtually impossible without 30 internationals on a club roster. The Pro12 sides were duly blown away.
Widening what was already a big divide between Pro12 sides and the wealthier Premiership and Top 14 cannot be good for European rugby.
That’s what doesn’t make sense.
The previous Heineken Cup structure would probably still produce a winner from Toulon, Saracens or Racing – the cream would still rise to the top – but it at least provided scope for a more compelling tournament with one-off wins meaning more than they do now.
That’s not just viewing it from an Irish perspective. There is an unsound business model in place now.
I can’t see how Leinster or Ulster can return to the elite table that they firmly sat at up until 2012, when they contested the Twickenham final. It’s a long way back to that high watermark. I’m not yet sure what impact Connacht’s squad can make on two fronts next season and Munster have too much rebuilding to even consider this in the short-term.
Leinster also have a few more years of consolidation. There are several areas that need to be looked at but, on the field, they need an immovable lock.
Mike McCarthy was back playing really solid rugby this season until that gruesome concussion in Paris. He was providing the much-needed physical presence to complement Devin Toner. Ian Nagle is coming to Dublin and Mick Kearney should get a clean run at it next season, but they will always be compared to Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn.
Seánie O’Brien, when he is fit, brings that essential physicality and street smarts to the Leinster pack but a big lump of a secondrow is essential to any team’s success nowadays. Just look at Maro Itoje and George Kruis at Sarries. Itoje, a powerful lock in his own right, brings a skill set that dovetails with the Kruis sledgehammer.
Before we get to the greatest outhalf the game has ever seen, that array of options makes it ridiculously difficult for Pro12 sides to compete. And the players are largely going in one direction. Glasgow’s Leone Nakarawa – the league’s dominant lock – is bound for France this summer.
Nakarawa has been a shining light of the Pro12 this season – constantly breaking the line, offloading and worth watching all by himself. The Fijian is too good for the highest wage the Scottish can muster. He’s worth more, he knows this, and so he goes to France.
Carter plays with a calmness under the most intense pressure that most professionals can only replicate playing touch before training. Even by New Zealand standards, he is special.
Any other player would have been discarded by the All Black selectors following two years of injury before a World Cup (far less leeway was afforded Israel Dagg and Cory Jane) but that swerve to create a try against Australia at Eden Park proved to Steve Hansen that Carter could still deliver.
And then his drop goals in both the semi-final and final ensured New Zealand retained the William Webb Ellis trophy; a skill not in evidence during their infamous 2007 World Cup quarter-final against France after he’d gone off injured.
Carter turns probability into reality. He was the central figure in the 2005 Lions’ Test series and at last year’s World Cup, so it makes sense to add a Champions Cup medal to his treasure trove.
His unparalleled mental composure brings harmony to every team he is a part of. Carter can no longer be accused of playing behind an All Black pack his entire career (because that’s what Canterbury always was). He came into a brand new group of multinational rugby players and helped gel them into a possible double-winning side.
I would still say Racing will look back on Sexton’s two years very holistically. Johnny tried to force through a lot of changes that are now probably seen as the norm. He laid the runway, if you will, for Carter’s smooth landing.
Lorenzetti knew that Johnny would seek to create a winning culture. He had seen him do it for Leinster during that 2011 European Cup final in Cardiff.
From the outside, it looked like the Racing players didn’t initially sign up to the standards Johnny demanded. That period of unrest is sometimes essential. Bad timing. Eighteen months later there has clearly been a change in the club’s collective atmosphere.
Something similar happened at Leinster with long-serving players like Denis Hickie, Reggie Corrigan and Victor Costello retiring before the European title came. At least their sacrifices ensured fundamental building blocks were in place for us to win the Heineken Cup in 2009.
I would contend that Johnny is one of a select few responsible in laying the groundwork for the winning culture the Racing players and staff now accept on a daily basis.
Ronan O’Gara would also have played a huge role behind the scenes. He must be a fountain of wisdom in these crucial days. How could he not be having won and lost everything on offer this Saturday. Twice.
Above all else, Rog understands how a team wins.
Ironically, Johnny has returned home from a developing environment to a vastly changed Leinster on both the playing and coaching front. That might have had something to do with his reaction to the recent loss in Belfast.
I knew what identified me with Leinster, with the team, with the jersey, with my team-mates. We had been down to France and lost by 50, 60 points. We had won a Celtic League final with 14 men. We had eventually captured the Heineken Cup under Michael Cheika. Then we went back to back under Joe.
That was my Leinster. It wasn’t the squad I left last summer. Same goes for Johnny. But that’s the key: that Leinster defined my career and the early part of Johnny’s because we lived and breathed those lows and highs.
Many of Leo’s current squad were close-by, watching this happen without having a direct input. That’s the challenge now for Leinster and Munster (Ulster and especially Connacht are further down this road in terms of identity and a functioning culture) – they are trying to figure out what defines them as a group.
Munster really struggled in recent months but there is light at the end of the tunnel with the appointment of Rassie Erasmus. They can park this season now.
Leinster had failed campaigns from 2004 until 2009 but we needed them, maybe not all of them, and while the public might not have that amount patience anymore, because they have grown accustomed to success, it will take time. The current squad can watch the Clermont semi-final in 2012 a thousand times but we needed to win one of these high-intensity games to understand how to do it again. It changes you.
It’s about asking hard questions of each other. Do the current Leinster players want to be known for wildly inconsistent performances or that victory over Bath at the RDS?
That’s the route to being successful in elite sport.
It starts with a Pro12 title. Never has that been so valuable for the Irish provinces. Just shows how important winning next week’s semi-final is for both Leinster and Ulster.
At least, for the first time, every game on the last weekend of the regular season mattered. The quality of rugby is still some way off the Top 14 and Premiership.
Still, I found the last Pro12 weekend to be compelling viewing. Take Francis Saili’s try for Munster. The Scarlets defence did nothing wrong. Jack O’Donoghue’s physicality in the tackle created the turnover deep in Munster’s 22 and Conor Murray saw the potential to attack through their All Black centre.
Saili stood up his own man, thereby committing extra bodies from the outside, then his perfectly weighed dink through was collected by Keith Earls without breaking stride. Saili then had a yard on turning defenders so he could track his winger for the inside pass.
Good skill taking the defence out of the equation. The only wonder is why it took until the last game of the season to come off.
The presence of Nigel Owens ensured the correct decisions were made in Thomond Park, especially when changing his mind to disallow Steffan Evans’s try after a clear forward pass. A lesser referee would have frozen and done nothing.
The Pro12 could have been a vastly better tournament had the standard of refereeing been better. Instead, too many times, it has been used as a breeding ground for what is hoped will be the next generation of officials. But too many times they were not up to the necessary standard. Lots of games suffered as a result, and so the Pro12 suffered.
On too many occasions coaches were making valid complaints post-game about bad calls by officials. It would make you switch off. That problem will be eradicated in the playoffs but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was evident throughout the regular season.
Otherwise we will see it all over again next season and the Pro12 cannot afford to fall any further behind.