ON WHAT WAS a fairly predictable weekend of Heineken Cup action, the stand out displays came from Clermont and Toulon, last year’s finalists and the two favourites again this season.
Neither was flawless, but the sight of a grinning Bakkies Botha slapping a dead-eyed Carl Hayman on the back after they had overpowered the Cardiff scrum sent a message that in European rugby, things will never be the same again.
This was one of the best and meanest second rows of all time, packing down behind the best tighthead prop of his generation; of course they were going to push Cardiff around. When you consider that a new €71 million TV deal has been announced between the Top 14 clubs and Canal+, that Sean O’Brien is probably on his way to Toulon and that Zac Guildford and Jonathan Davies are moving to Clermont, real consideration has to be given to the possibility that the Heineken Cup will effectively become a shoot-out every year between the top French teams.
It will take the combined efforts of all the other countries if a complete monopoly on success is to be prevented.
If the Heineken Cup continues next season with all nations involved, for it to have real credibility it needs the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh to be realistic contenders. Leinster, Munster and Ulster are doing their part, Glasgow have improved, and the English should strengthen with an increase in their TV money.
The Welsh regions, however, have once again been pathetically inconsistent. Over the history of the competition they’re as big a factor as the Scottish teams, which is to say, totally irrelevant.
Leinster: host Ospreys on Friday night (INPHO/Billy Stickland)
There aren’t even any hard luck stories or signs of progress or tragic last-minute losses. They rarely make the quarter-finals, never mind the semis, and have never threatened to be more than a road bump when playing away from home, besides the odd player-led Ospreys performance.
They won’t say it, probably even to each other, but somewhere in the back of the Leinster players’ minds there is the thought that they can get a four-try bonus win on Friday night, and give themselves an outside chance of a home quarter-final. In the back of the Ospreys players’ minds is the thought that they can eliminate Leinster from the competition.
Cardiff, Llanelli and the Dragons often seem to accept their fates, beaten down over the years by successive losses. The Ospreys though are like the drunk that keeps coming back swinging, confidence levels outweighing actual ability. That confidence sometimes makes them dangerous.
The Ospreys owners have similar ambitions to Leinster’s but with a better stadium and the combined resources of two clubs (Neath and Swansea) that had far better traditions, infrastructure, fan bases and self esteem than Leinster had in the amateur era.
They were expected to become European heavyweights but instead they had to stand aside as Leinster and Munster claimed cup after cup. They’re like Josh Hartnett sitting at home watching Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper get all the big parts.
Things aren’t perfect at the moment for the Irish teams; performances aren’t matching the results, the quarter-final draw could be daunting and the French are nibbling away at the top players. The way things are shaping up off the field, this might be their last chance to win the tournament for a few years, but if we ever want to feel good about the provincial scene, we just need to take a look at Wales.