Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline
Johnny Sexton’s extended IRFU contract takes him halfway towards his avowed ultimate goal of emulating the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady by playing until he’s 40.
The best player in the world – Sexton, not Brady – will be 37 when his deal runs out in 2021, coinciding with the truncated Lions tour of South Africa. Given a fair wind he will by then be the longest-lasting out half of the professional era.
Mike Catt was three days short of 36 when he made his last stand there for England in the opening match of the 2007 World Cup.
Far from affording him a final curtain call, the result, a 36-0 rout by the Springboks, ensured that Catt departed after a performance in the same shambolic league as Mrs May’s government.
Sexton is also on course to eclipse other venerable predecessors who lasted into their mid-30’s like the little Italian maestro Diego Dominguez, the Wallaby David Knox, the pioneering black Springbok Errol Tobias and Guy Laporte of France.
Nobody in his right mind will expect Sexton to last long enough to eclipse the oldest stand-off of all, Hugo Porta who was 39 when he retired. Should the best in the business somehow manage to defy such overwhelming odds, then next year’s World Cup will not be his last.
When it comes to providing a stage and a following worthy of the Champions’ Cup, nobody delivers both as often as Leinster and Munster – rugby’s version of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Season in, season out, Ireland’s big two bring a box-office appeal on a scale beyond the rest. After three rounds and 30 matches over the last two months, just one of the 20 contenders has generated a crowd of 20,000 or more – Munster, twice.
Leinster will double that figure at the very least in Dublin on Saturday, their annual Christmas extravaganza at the Aviva Stadium already guaranteed to fill more than 40,000 seats, as per usual.
No matter how close they get to capacity, the attendance will be the highest of the six-round pool stage because nobody else plans to use a larger arena.
Since moving their last pre-Christmas home tie from the RDS, Leinster have never failed to double their following.
The impact that Johnny Sexton and his Pied Pipers have had on the competition as a whole can be gauged by the fact that of the ten biggest gates for pool matches during the last ten seasons, Leinster have provided the majority.
The score over that period is as impressive as any of their results: Leinster 6, The Rest 4.
Another score, every bit as impressive over the same ten-year stretch, belongs to Munster, a score based on how often, or, in most cases how seldom, a team has topped home crowds of 20,000. In that respect, Thomond Park hardly ever fails to rise to each and every occasion.
Limerick stands head and shoulders above any other rugby venue on the European circuit.
At a time when the Welsh regions fail to fill significantly smaller stadia, only one British or French club runs them close, Welford Road in Leicester where the snarling Tigers of old have been superseded by a bunch of pussycats too tame for their own good.
For so long the best supported of British clubs, Leicester failed to reach the 20,000 mark against Scarlets in October.
Whether they get that many for Sunday’s do-or-die return against Racing remains to be seen.
In contrast, Munster’s next home tie against Exeter next month will surely be as close to Thomond’s 26,500 limit as makes no difference.
In the ten years since they last conquered Europe under Paul O’Connell, Munster has accounted for almost 40% of the pool matches featuring crowds of 20,000 or more.
They have done so 27 times, more than twice as many as their nearest challenger, Leicester Tigers with 13.
Then come Leinster, with all eight at the Aviva, followed by Toulouse 6, Bordeaux 4, Saracens 3, Wasps 3, Racing 3, London Irish, Cardiff Blues, Toulon, Montpellier, Northampton 1 each.
Dan Carter made 51 starts for Racing in three seasons when the Parisians reputedly paid him in excess of £4m. At face value that works out at not far short of £80,000-a-game over a period when the club won one French title and lost two European finals.
Racing may well have recouped some of their investment, maybe more, by exploiting Carter’s off-field commercial value through replica jersey sales and so forth but the question is still there to be answered: Good business?
No such question need be asked in respect of Carter’s English counterpart, Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon. In five seasons at the Napoleonic port on the Med, he made 137 starts, delivering one national title and an unprecedented hat-trick of European titles. The handsome dividends on Toulon’s investment in Wilkinson appear all the more so when compared to Carter’s initial foray into France down among the Catalans of Perpignan. It proved to be a costly misadventure, for the club more than the player.
Dan The Man arrived there 10 years ago on a seven-month contract worth €700,000, made five appearances and scored 45 points. It wasn’t Carter’s fault that a ruptured Achilles tendon brought his sojourn to a depressingly premature end. It won’t deter other French clubs from spending a fortune on ageing All Blacks with more than a fair few miles on the body clock.
Racing are said to be looking at signing Kieran Read after the World Cup by which time Read will have turned 34. Ben Smith, 33 next summer, is expected to join Pau. Toulon, undaunted by Julian Savea’s record of one try in nine matches, are in the market for his compatriot, Ryan Crotty.
When it comes to boxing his corner, Richard Cockerill has never been found wanting, including eye-balling The Haka.
Now he finds himself mentioned in dispatches by the RFU in their painstaking search to identify Eddie Jones’ successor.
Should his Edinburgh team complete a Champions’ Cup double in Newcastle tomorrow night, Cockerill’s stock at the RFU will keep soaring.
It makes a welcome change from the days when they gave him a season ticket to appear before their disciplinary tribunal…
Another Scottish-based forwards coach, Jonathan Humphreys, could also be moving back into the Test arena.
The ex-Wales captain, part of Vern Cotter’s Scotlandregime before joining Glasgow Warriors, is being lined up to join Wales’ post-World Cup coaching team under head honcho-elect Wayne Pivac.
The season of goodwill to all men including football managers and rugby coaches offers no immunity from the sack, least of all to football managers and rugby coaches.
Manchester United gave Cork’s Frank O’Farrell the heave-ho at Christmas 1972 and now the same fate has befallen Bernard Jackman at the Newport-based Dragons.
While O’Farrell has never forgiven the late Matt Busby for undermining his 18-month stint at Old Trafford, Jackman responded by wishing the Dragons and his successor well for the rest of the season.
A touch of class by the man from Tullow but then those who know him won’t be the least bit surprised.