At the risk of redefining the delusional practice of clutching at straws, perhaps there is something to be said after all for making an early exit from the World Cup. Some circumstantial evidence in flimsy support of such an implausible theory can be found in the opening round of the Champions Cup.
England went all the way in Japan yet only two of their six contenders for Europe’s glittering prize avoided defeat.
Wales also went the distance in Japan and a fat lot of good it did their sole qualifier Ospreys, virtually counted out after a home beating rendered as pointless as the result. Ireland, by contrast, swept the board,providing an overdue antidote to the stink hanging over the country since Shizouka.
The longer any squad lasts at a World Cup, the more swingeing the penalty to be paid by club employers having to rest their most prized assets. Nobody paid a heavier one in that respect than Saracens’ reserves in Paris yesterday, ironically so in view of the additional handicaps over salary cap violations.
Ospreys, stripped of almost as many superstars, had been reduced to such a threadbare state that they never had a fighting chance of making home advantage count. A losing bonus point proved far too ambitious, even if Munster made heavy weather of securing all five.
The embarrassing nature of Ireland’s early retreat from Tokyo had, if nothing else, given their World Cup contingent ample time to lick their wounds and refuel the motivational tank. The same applied to Leinster and Ulster, their Test players discovering a silver lining, of sorts, to the dirtiest of World Cup clouds.
Despite Leinster’s routine five-point start in Dublin against Treviso and Munster launching their European campaign for the first time with a maximum away win, the Irish quadruple took some doing. Ulster and Connacht had to stand toe-to-toe against supposedly superior opponents to keep their part of the bargain.
Ulster’s triumph at Bath, an impressive start to European life after Rory Best made all the more so by Sam Underhill’s early return from England duty, may well prove priceless when the final reckoning for the quarter- finals is made in the New Year.
Connacht, blitzed by Leinster the previous week and ravaged by casualties, responded with another inspiring example of how they have long outgrown the role of gallant losers.
Despite the unseasonal Galway sunshine, a Montpellier squad assembled at vast expense by club owner Mohed Altrad and a few misses from Jack Carty, Connacht still passed a searching test of character with flying colours.
Now they head for Toulouse as part of a Franco-Irish second round. Clermont in Belfast, Racing at Thomond Park, and Leinster in Lyon, complete a challenging weekend.
Four more provincial wins would be asking too much but three would do very nicely as a positive example that what happened to Ireland in Japan really was too bad to be true…
At least five of Europe’s most enduring out-halves are alive and kicking. By pure coincidence, the two oldest uncapped 10s still in the game bumped into each other on Champions Cup duty over the weekend.
Brock James, at 38 the daddy of them all, came off the bench in a lost cause for La Rochelle.Opposite number Gareth Steenson, a relative spring chicken at 35, joined him 60 seconds later to help earn Exeter the best away win of the opening round.
Another 35-year-old goalkicker, Stephen Myler, made his European comeback for London Irish at Llanelli on Saturday night. Unlike James and Steenson, Myler has played Test rugby, albeit no more than 15 minutes for England as a late substitute in Buenos Aires six years ago.
While Johnny Sexton resumed normal service for Leinster at 34, the procession of goalkicking survivors continued elsewhere. At Swansea, another 34-year-old James Hook, put in a late appearance for the Ospreys. At Llanelli an hour or two later, another uncapped veteran, Ryan Lamb, made his Challenge Cup bow for Scarlets at 33.
Others are waiting in the wings, most notably Jimmy Gopperth, Leinster’s match-winner during Sexton’s exile in Paris. Having sat out last season after knee surgery, Wasps’ New Zealander plans to keep going at 36.
At the last count, the Champions Cup action across Europe featured seven sons of famous fathers who played Test rugby for New Zealand, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and France: John Gallagher, Rob Lozowski, David Curtis, Gavin Hastings, Brian Redpath, Ieuan Evans, and Emile NTamack.
Their sons include two full-backs (Matt Gallagher of Saracens, Cai Evans of Ospreys), two centres (Angus Curtis, Cameron Redpath), two fly-halves (Adam Hastings of Glasgow, Romain Ntamack of Toulouse) and one wing (Alex Lozowski of Saracens).
As if that’s not enough, two more young guns are also waiting in the wings as members of Northampton’s supporting cast — stand-off James Grayson and wing Ollie Sleightholme — whose fathers, Paul and John, made their England bows during the ’90s.
Europe’s second-tier tournament has suffered over the years from too many French clubs, giving the impression that the Challenge Cup is a bit beneath their dignity. The Top 14 is everything as Castres demonstrated again at the weekend.
The starting XV they dispatched to Newport showed 12 changes from the one which had beaten Brive the previous week. The Dragons duly made it count with a decisive home win.
In marked contrast to Castres, La Rochelle under Ronan O’Gara picked 11 of their line-up against Lyon the previous week for their home tie against Exeter.
A damaging defeat increases the significance of their Irish head coach’s next mission, against Sale in Warrington next Sunday.