Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline
There is one certainty about the final of rugby’s Champions Cup which can be stated without fear of contradiction: The result will elevate one Anglo-Irish partnership to still greater heights.
Leinster versus Saracens at St James’ Park tomorrow could justifiably claim to have all the raw material required to take the club game where it has never gone before. The cast, bulging with Lions and Grand Slammers, promises a Test-match intensity as close to the real thing as makes no difference.
Leinster and Saracens are far enough ahead of the pack to justify billing as rugby’s equivalent of Manchester City and Liverpool. Apart from their excellence in winning matches on a similarly prodigious scale, rugby’s big two share another common denominator, an Anglo-Irish alliance driving their game.
In the blue corner from Dublin: Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster of Leinster, champions of Europe. In the black corner from north London: Mark McCall and Nigel Wray of Saracens, champions of England.
When the fog lifts on the Tyne tomorrow evening, when the gladiators have done busting their collective gut and the medics start picking up the bits and pieces, one Irish coach will stand alone, like Klopp and Guardiola rolled into one.
Cullen, from Newtownmountkennedy in Wicklow, will have won Europe’s supreme prize for an unheard of fifth time or McCall, from the seaside town of Bangor in Down, will have presided over Sarries’ third winning final under Wray’s visionary direction as a latter-day Phineas T Barnum.
No English club has achieved such a hat-trick during almost 25 years of professionalism, not even Leicester Tigers when they stampeded through the jungle frightening the other beasts with their snarling ferocity as epitomised by Martin Johnson.
And when they were under the cosh, as they were against Munster beside the Taff in the 2002 final, the Tigers’ instinct for self-preservation made them cheat without compunction. Neil Back slapping the ball out of Peter Stringer’s hands as he tried to feed a Munster scrum under the Leicester posts still stands alone for notoriety but the England flanker got away with it as did the Tigers, clinging on to a win made possible by a try from Kildare’s Geordan Murphy.
Munster’s hard men refused to make a big deal of it, acknowledging privately that had the boot been on the other foot, they’d have taken the same calculated risk and done what Back did.
Nowhere in Ireland did Leicester make a bigger impression than on Cullen, then learning his trade with his native province at a time when they hardly did much more in Europe than make up the numbers. He remembers the hard times, “when we really struggled and it was an achievement to get out of the pool”.
Among those willing to embrace the old maxim about if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, Cullen did just that.
He spent two years in the East Midlands, helping fill the void left by Johnson’s retirement and heading home “a better player for the experience” despite losing the 2007 Heineken final to Wasps.
Two years later Leo showed the Tigers how much he had learnt by leading Leinster to the first of three European crowns, ironically at the Tigers’ expense.
As head coach, he reinvented Leinster as champions not least because he had the nous and savvy to rescue the man whom England had thrown overboard after the 2015 World Cup.
Stuart Lancaster’s influence over the last three seasons has been well documented. It says everything about his partnership with Cullen, one which continues to endure with Lancaster dead-batting every overture to return to England.
And now they stand 80 minutes away from steering the Leinster battleship to an unprecedented fifth title, acutely aware that Saracens tomorrow will be far from the soft touch they might have been in last year’s quarter-final in Dublin.
Some years ago I asked English rugby’s ‘communications department’ for an interview with a newly capped second- row forward, Steve Borthwick, about whom precious little had been communicated.
By then every country, including, most depressingly, Ireland, had set up its own propaganda unit, each gripped by varying degrees of paranoia depending on the level of control-freakery demanded by the management staff.
Ten days later, long enough for the average Trappist monastery to have responded, I began to think it might have been easier to have reached the Pope, Benedict as he was back then. The sound of silence had grown ever more deafening by the time I stumbled into Borthwick at the end of an England training session.
I asked for a word whereupon a ‘prevention officer’ from the ‘communications department’ rushed into action, demanding: “What do you want to ask him?”
“His interest in American politics. He has a degree in the subject.”
“Well, we have a plane to catch so don’t be long.”
“Steve, who are your favourite American presidents?”
Not a trace of curve on a ball which begged to be smashed into a home run by a reply along the lines of Jefferson, FDR, and JFK or, if he really wanted to be controversial, George ‘Dubya’ Bush. Before Borthwick could answer, the Twickenham enforcer sprang between us like a boxing referee and led England’s American history student to a neutral corner, telling me: “You can’t possibly ask a question like that.”
Presumably, it was called off because someone feared that any answer might have caused some offence within enemy ranks and therefore given a crumb of motivational comfort to the thin-skinned Italians. How preposterously paranoid can you get?
Barack Obama occupied the White House at the time and nobody then imagined his successor would be the buffoon from reality television. At least one of Borthwick’s more colourful former team-mates broke ranks this week to underline the absurdity of player-control as exercised at Test level.
James Haskell, of Wasps, England and the Lions, fired a parting shot at the state of the current game.
“Everything is so sanitised,” he said, announcing his retirement at 34. “You can’t say this, do that, offend that person. You must re-shoot that photo because it had a different mobile phone in it and you can’t ask that question. It’s all so boring.
The pyrotechnics at Anfield on Tuesday night and in Amsterdam 24 hours later have set the bar almost impossibly high for Leinster and Saracens tomorrow. It’s as if the Champions League are saying to their rugby counterparts: ‘Beat that, and you’ll have one helluva of a final.’
A try or two would help for a start. Since the clubs running Europe’s three fully-professional leagues shamelessly copied the soccer model and rebranded their competition the Champions Cup, tries have been very few and far between.
Two of the last three finals have produced nothing more stimulating in the try-scoring department than a big, fat zero, a figure made all the fatter by the penalty goal count: 19.
There were nine penalties when Leinster beat Racing in Bilbao this time last year, with five from Johnny Sexton; 10 when Saracens outkicked the same French opponent 21-9 at Twickenham, where Owen Farrell outpointed Johan Goosen 7-3.
Despite their blank in the Basque Country, Leinster can reasonably claim to have done more than their bit for the image of the final as a try-fest. They overwhelmed Ulster with five at Twickenham in 2012 and shared six with Northampton Saints the previous season in coming from almost as far behind then as Liverpool were at Anfield on Wednesday night. Another final to stir the soul like that one is long overdue…
Micky Steele-Bodger started out as a vet in his native Tamworth in the English midlands and rapidly made a name for himself as the best-known of all British rugby men as well as the best-loved, admittedly not the most competitive of categories.
He became so synonymous with the Barbarians that players the world over would wait with bated breath for a call to join the world’s most famous touring club from the man himself, Micky Baa-baa.
England’s oldest surviving international and president of the Barbarian Football Club, he passed away peacefully on Wednesday night at home in Tamworth, in his 94th year.