dispiriting weekend damages Euro vision

A disturbing weekend for the so-called Champions’ Cup provokes a rhetorical question which would have been unthinkable in days of yore: What’s the point?

It would have been asked ad infinitum over a series of misadventures affecting contenders from Ireland, England, France and South Africa. The collateral damage to the credibility of a tournament once revered like no other will take some repairing.

Gloucester slogged their way through the autumn, winter, spring and early summer of the English Premiership to justify their place among the European elite. They won their first match, then chose to throw a second XV into the deepest of ends against Leinster at the RDS.

No sense of duty to the competition itself, no desire to test themselves against star-spangled opponents who could justifiably be described as Ireland in blue, no apparent obligation to give the fans a rewarding run for their money.

Instead a grim pragmatism prevailed as if Gloucester decided they weren’t going to win the match anyway, hence the chance to give their front-line internationals a week off. Such a lame excuse sounds a bit like blaming Leinster for being too good.

The four-time champions are never slow to rest their first-team squad en masse when it suits them. The glaring difference is that they win the vast majority and of the few they do lose, never by 57 points.

One of Gloucester’s most famous old players, reared in surely the greatest of the few English cities where Rugby Union matters more than any other kind of football, touched on that point yesterday in defense of his old club.

”I’ve often thought Leinster were a better team than Ireland and Ireland are the best team in the world so that takes some doing,” says ex-England and Lions prop Mike Burton. ”Going to Ireland for any English team means going to a higher grade. The one thing that pleased me about Gloucester on Friday night was that they never gave in. They were simply not good enough.” No amount of heroics can mask the fact that Gloucester had reduced what could have been one of the ties of the round to a no-contest. They had effectively thrown the match and thrown the whole competition out of kilter by the magnitude of the result.

French clubs have been doing that for years with notable exceptions, Toulouse and La Rochelle of today, Toulon and Clermont of yesteryear but not the rest for whom winning the Top 14 matters more than Europe. Gloucester are not alone, therefore, in giving priority to their domestic schedule.

The South Africans have not taken long to feel the heat of a different kind. The Blue Bulls left 21 front-line players behind in Pretoria for a journey to Exeter which took 26 hours from door-to-door. They lost by 30 points.

At least the Bulls knew where they were going which was more than could be said for Ulster once Ravenhill had been deemed unfit to stage the La Rochelle tie. The organizers sent them to Dublin instead, adding insult to injury by closing every door at The Aviva on the fans except the 100 or so from La Rochelle.

Why didn’t they keep the match in Belfast and move it back 24 hours, unless, of course, television objected. The whole episode would have left Ulster fans and players alike asking: ”What’s the point?” By then, Leinster, the weary Bulls, the more objective followers of Gloucester, Exeter and countless other clubs would have beaten them to it.

Munster stand up and fight again

A few too many US Presidents have come and gone since they last won the trophy but Munster can always be relied upon to stand up and fight for Europe’s premier competition. As usual, they put body and soul into the cause which was more than could be said of some.

The colder and wetter the going, the more Munster relished the challenge as if offended by others showing rather less commitment to the cause, none more so than Tadhg Beirne. He also found exactly the right word for the virtue behind the win at Northampton: ”Backbone.” Besieged on their own line, Munster found enough of it to survive, as much on sheer will-power alone. That they did so despite the hefty handicap of three yellow cards made it all the more satisfying for defense coach Denis Leamy, an ever-present member of those famous Cardiff finals against Toulouse and Biarritz.

The final quarter would have been a whole lot more hair-raising had Munster not gained from Pierre-Baptiste Nucity’s eccentric piece of refereeing in denying the English Saints a penalty try. That’s the great thing about backbone: show enough and you deserve your luck.

More of it will be required against the same opponent at Thomond on January 14 to complete Munster’s passage into the last 16. A trip to Toulouse the following week makes a bonus point home win all the more imperative.

Leinster’s home comforts

With the solitary exception of next month’s trip to Kingsholm, Leinster are already on course to play all four knock-out matches – the Round of 16, quarter-finals, semi and final – without having to leave Dublin.

That will be seriously ominous news for every one of those few contenders with the ambition and ability to knock them off their perch. Their home record keeps going through the roof.

An average of 40-plus points per match at the RDS/Aviva over the last five years with only one loss: to Saracens in the quarter-final three seasons ago.

An average home win of 57-13 over their last five home ties and they include Toulouse in last season’s semi-final.

The win of the round gives Welsh hope

Ospreys came home from France to headlines about job losses and pay cuts of up to 50 per cent across all four Welsh regions as part of a joint six-year deal with the Welsh Rugby Union designed to solve the financial crisis.

They also came home with not any old win but the win of the round, 21-10 in Montpellier against the French champions. It ended a run of eleven straight European defeats and gave Wales’ sole qualifier real hope of reaching the knock-out stage for the first time in 13 years.

Intimate affair

Meanwhile, the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in the ham-and-cheese city of Parma played host to the strangest of fixtures. The Cheetahs from Bloemfontein have taken up residence there in the Challenge Cup matches, starting with the Scarlets.

It guaranteed the smallest crowd for any European tie, lockdown-excepted. It was officially given as 200, 60 of whom traveled from West Wales to see their team win.

Half the world away

Jake White (Bulls coach on going from the South African summer to the freezing English winter):

”We flew for 26 hours in economy class halfway round the world and arrived in minus two degree temperatures. Then we had a four-hour journey by road. It’s very different from waking up in your own bed and playing in 30-degree temperatures. That is the wonder of rugby.” He must have said it through gritted teeth…

How they stand halfway through the four-match pool competition

Almost there for a home Round of 16 ties: Leinster, Exeter, Saracens, Sharks, La Rochelle, Toulouse, Leicester.

Still fighting: Sale Sharks, Stormers, Munster, Ospreys, Clermont, Montpellier, Edinburgh, Blue Bulls.

hanging on: Harlequins or Racing, Gloucester.

On the ropes: Northampton, London Irish, Castres, Harlequins or Racing.

Team of the weekend:

15 Brice Dulin (La Rochelle) 14 Lucas Tauzin (Toulouse) 13 Garry Ringrose (Leinster) 12 Jonathan Danty (La Rochelle) 11 James Lowe (Leinster) 10 Antoine Hastoy (La Rochelle) 9 Rhys Webb (Ospreys) 1 Rory Sutherland (Ulster ) 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs) 3 Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers) 4 Tadhg Beirne (Munster) 5 Adam Beard (Ospreys) 6 Jasper Wiese (Leicester Tigers) 7 Peter O’Mahony (Munster) 8 Morgan Morris (Ospreys)

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