Peter Jackson looks back at the weekend's Champions Cup action.
Wales have won more Six Nations’ Grand Slams than Ireland and England, yet their teams continue to vanish from Europe’s club events as if run by a pack of arch-Brexiteers.
Once again the regional quartet based in Cardiff, Swansea, Llanelli and Newport are nowhere to be seen in the last eight of either tournament. Once again they have beaten a retreat swift enough to leave the impression of being under the collective management of Jacob Rees-Mogg and the DUP.
Between them, the Blues, Scarlets, Ospreys and Dragons hardly fired a shot or raised a flicker of hope. Scarlets did give Racing a run for their money indoors in Paris but by then they had long been counted out, unable to beat a modest Ulster team before Christmas.
Blues never recovered from a double defeat by another PRO14 opponent, Glasgow. Ospreys lost home and away to the English Premiership’s perennial strugglers, Worcester, and the under-powered Dragons disappeared, predictably enough, in a puff of smoke.
In stark contrast, Ireland’s provincial quartet have all made it to the last eight for the first time, a nationwide success seen by many in Wales as a triumph for the IRFU’s central contracting system. That conveniently overlooks Ireland’s chronic failure under the same system to proceed beyond the quarter-finals of any World Cup — so far.
Money, as always, has a lot to do with it. When it comes to large squads and marquee signings, the Welsh teams cannot compete with the French or English, but neither can the Scottish duo and both, glory be, are among the elite eight of the Champions’ Cup.
Edinburgh’s conversion from perennial also-rans into home quarter-finalists capable of giving Munster the heave-ho makes Richard Cockerill’s signing as head coach look smarter by the week. Given the Welsh obsession for New Zealanders, it is doubtful if Cockerill caused much interest there after his sacking by Leicester.
Scarlets have still to cope with the void left by Tadhg Beirne’s exit and they have been ravaged by injury, but so have others. The Welsh exodus comes in the midst of talks between the Union and its regions over the future, talks that have spawned conjecture of a double merger between the Blues and Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets.
The regions, born out a series of shotgun marriages involving famous old clubs left high and dry once the Welsh rejected a generous English offer of six places in their Premiership, have always been short of love. They also suffer from having to compete with their own national team.
They averaged more than 63,000 over four consecutive Saturdays in November. The aggregate attendance of all four regions amounts to fewer than half and it does not take Archimedes to work out that at least 30,000 fans support Wales at the expense of their region.
The same players, with the help of a few from across the border, have pushed the national team to number three in the world rankings. Ireland, for one, will be happy to give the Welsh a wide berth in Japan later this year.
At the risk of being accused of sacrilege, winning can sometimes be a disincentive or, to be more accurate, winning big can bring its own penalty. Toulouse found themselves in a position yesterday which exposed a flaw in the Champions’ Cup qualification process for the last eight.
Two first-half tries against Bath put them halfway to a bonus point which would have meant a change of destination in the quarter-finals. Instead of confronting Racing at their indoor arena in Paris, Toulouse would have been heading back to Ireland on the nearest thing to Mission Impossible — Leinster in Dublin.
Now before any Machiavellian theories start running riot, nobody is suggesting — perish the thought — that Toulouse throttled back to ensure the try bonus point blew away on the wind. Had they got it, they would have moved up one place in the seedings to sixth and a date with Leinster — out of the frying pan into the fire.
The biggest of all French clubs had qualified for the last eight irrespective of their fate before Bath pushed them all the way. The result ensured that Toulouse stay in France and while Racing is a tough assignment, most neutrals would agree that Leinster would have been a whole lot tougher.
They haven’t lost a home quarterfinal in 14 seasons and Ulster, having drawn the shortest of short straws, know that a repeat of their below-par display at Leicester will lead to the swiftest of exits when the tournament resumes on Brexit Day (March 29).
From this distance, the last eight offers two home bankers — Leinster and Saracens who play their eighth successive quarter-final, against Glasgow.
Racing-Toulouse looks a little less certain, leaving Edinburgh-Munster as a real humdinger.
Rugby’s long struggle to break out of its largely English-speaking straitjacket took another fearful hammering at the weekend. Instead of narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots, the Romanians from Timisoara found out the hard way at Northampton that it’s as wide as ever, conceding 17 tries and 111 points.
The Russians from Krasnoyarsk, Enisei-STM, conceded the same number of tries and two conversions fewer in going down without a trace to Bristol, 107-19. Andy Uren, a 22-year-old scrum half, helped himself to five tries, scoring more in one afternoon than in his four previous seasons put together.
Beatings on such a scale do nothing for the credibility of the Challenge Cup, not to mention all that guff about rugby being a global game.
With the notable exception of Georgia, the professional era has done nothing to change the old pecking order other than to make it all the harder for the outsiders.
The Netherlands have hardly been heard of since the grotesque mismatch against England at Huddersfield more than 20 years ago (110-0). And Romania haven’t been seen at Twickenham since shipping 20 tries to England (134-0) on a day when a new fly half, Charlie Hodgson, filled his boots with 44 points.
Sean Cronin has now scored more tries this season than an entire squadron of Test wings.
Two more at Coventry yesterday raised his tally for Leinster and Ireland to 12, one more than England’s Jonny May, two more than Wales’ Liam Williams, three more than Andrew Conway and Chris Ashton, four more than Jacob Stockdale and Sean Maitland.
Only two wings have matched Ireland’s number two hooker try-for- tries this season — Simon Zebo and his Racing sidekick Juan Imhoff.
Of current internationals, only Virimi Vakatawa has out-tried Cronin with 13 and the French Fijian has delivered several of those from his current position at outside centre.
As for Cronin breaking the habit of a Six Nations’ lifetime and actually starting against England on Saturday week, he will need more than a flood of tries to unseat the captain, Rory Best.
Tomás O’Leary’s touchline verdict at Thomond Park had more than a whiff of a hometown decision about it. “It was never a game Munster looked like losing,” he told BTSport.
“Maybe I’m biased….’’ He is but, as one who gave blood for Munster, not least during their last triumphant European campaign 11 years ago, he’s entitled to be.
15 Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets)
14 Simon Zebo (Racing)
13 Henry Slade (Exeter)
12 Henry Chavancy (Racing)
11 Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh)
10 George Ford (Leicester)
9 John Cooney (Ulster)
1 Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)
2 Stuart McInally (Edinburgh)
3 WP Nel (Edinburgh)
4 Iain Henderson (Ulster)
5 Tadhg Beirne (Munster)
6 Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
7 Don Armand (Exeter)
8 CJ Stander (Munster)