Weekend events liable to stiffen demands of English clubs
The posturing of the English Premiership clubs won’t go away
The posturing of the English Premiership clubs and their voluble spokesperson Mark McCafferty won’t go away, and hence, nor will the very real threat to the future of the Heineken Cup. There hasn’t been a meeting of the stakeholders since January to sort out the Anglo-French demands for a restructuring of the competition’s make-up and financial distribution, much less the vexed point of conflicting television deals, but if it comes to pass that the brinkmanship brings an end to the tournament, it would fly in the face of what the English fans, players and coaches want as much as anyone else.
That much was evident over the weekend as the crowds turned out in carnival-like force for a feast of rugby. European quarter-final weekend is invariably one of the highlights of the season, and once again it didn’t disappoint, even if the thought occurred that some of the better referees were in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals as opposed to the Heineken Cup’s supposed elite, with Romain Poite’s interpretations at the breakdown, especially, and at scrum time in the Saracens-Ulster game as baffling as ever.
Alas the weekend’s events are liable to stiffen the demands and resolve of the English clubs, for although Saracens swelled their coffers and beat Ulster, they were the only English winners. The other five teams all lost, and while there was no shame in Leicester going down in a predictable arm wrestle in Toulon, the home defeats for Gloucester, Wasps and Bath, all of them play-off and top six contenders, at home to Biarritz, Leinster and Stade Français, didn’t reflect handsomely on the Aviva Premiership.
Leinster hit their straps and are back-to-back European champions, their run of three Heineken Cups in four years making them arguably the finest team the tournament has ever seen, but Biarritz and Stade Français are some way off the top six pace in the Top 14.
Nor, understandably, did Conor O’Shea see any shame in losing at home to a vintage Munster performance. To make Munster’s success on Sunday all the more impressive is that fully 12 of their starting XV were born, reared, schooled and groomed in Munster. There were also half a dozen indigenous players on the bench. A dozen indigenous players in the starting XV and 18 in a match-day squad? This wouldn’t happen anywhere else.
The refusal, or at any reluctance, of players to decamp to another province, and the relative lack of movement between the provinces, is oft cited as a weakness in the Irish system. Take the case of Tommy O’Donnell, now flowering into a perspective openside who will surely make his Test debut on the summer tour to North America.
Moved to Connacht
Had the Australian module or mentality been applied, one ventures, O’Donnell would have been moved to Connacht and converted into an openside several years ago. O’Connell drew a parallel between Jerry Flannery’s late development when talking about O’Donnell.
Flannery, of course, did take a very important detour via Connacht, without which who knows what would have happened to his career, and he was able to return to his native province and establish himself as the best in his position in Ireland and perhaps even Europe for a while.
Now 25 and in his sixth season since making his competitive debut, O’Donnell considered and very nearly went to Connacht as he struggled to break into the Munster backrow.
But on Sunday evening, one ventures the 25-year-old Tipperary openside had no regrets whatsoever, and others will look at his example and deduce it’s worth staying with one’s native province.
O’Connnell also spoke after the game about the importance of the young players such as O’Donnell, Kilcoyne, Sherry O’Mahony, Zebo and others of learning how to win big knockout games like this away from home. O’Connell is also acutely conscious of passing on the baton to the next generation.
On top of a great team growing old together, Munster were also denied further leaders with the premature retirements of players such as Flannery and Denis Leamy, thereby leaving only O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara of Sunday’s starting team as the survivors from the Heineken Cup final starting XVs. And without either of them last Sunday would not have possible, so sign up for another year now Rog and stop prevaricating, you and O’Connell are the conduits between Munster’s golden generation and the new generation.
But if last season’s dramatic, 50-phase endgame and O’Gara drop goal deep into overtime at home to Northampton at Thomond Park passed the baton on in terms of Munster’s unquenchable belief in themselves and each other to pull their Houdini-like escapes, last Sunday was an important lesson in how to win a knock-out game on the road.
Munster hadn’t won a knock-out game in the Heineken Cup since the quarter-final at home to Northampton three seasons ago, and hadn't won a knock-out game away since beating Saracens in the Ricoh Arena at the semi-final stage five seasons ago. Eleven of last Sunday’s starting line-up, along with four of the five replacements used, had never won a Heineken Cup knock-out tie with Munster on the road before. And so another baton was passed on, and the Munster show goes on.