Leinster simply the best, says Sky pundit Barnes

THERE probably isn’t enough ink to do justice to an afternoon with Stuart Barnes. The former England international and Lion rolls out the stories and anecdotes — the late Keith Floyd figures in a few — in a steady stream.

However, Barnes is also a respected pundit on television and in print. He doesn’t shy away from frank answers, such as his evaluation of the various leagues in rugby — the Magners League, the English Premiership and the French Top 14.

“It’s slightly different in France, where the culture of the Top 14 is such that coaches feel they need to come to grips with being national champions first. In a way, in England it’s a little like the Premiership in football — you want to be national champions first, then Europe. Toulouse would be the exception for me.

“Regarding the Magners League, I think the view from outside is that we only judge Magners League teams on the Heineken Cup — that’s the benchmark on which teams are judged. Take the Ospreys — they have underachieved in Europe and are a poor team in my book. It doesn’t matter if they put together a run of results in the Magners, beating the likes of Glasgow, who may be missing their five Scottish internationals, or the Dragons, who may be missing their three Welsh internationals.

“What’s helped the Irish teams is the overseas talent, which has created depth for those squads; I’m not sure we could say in England that Munster or Leinster would come mid-table in our league because frankly, I’m seeing a lot of mediocre and unambitious rugby in the first few weeks. I can’t deny that. I think a Munster or Leinster team with eight first-teamers and seven internationals missing wouldn’t beat a Premiership team with ten first-teamers and five internationals missing.

“At the moment the best team in the four nations is Leinster. Don’t forget, if Ulster were in the Premiership they’d have fewer internationals missing, so they’d be competitive as well.

“I understand the theory about the strengths of the leagues, but I think it slightly overestimates where the Premiership is, in terms of the quality — and it also makes this weekend very interesting for me.”

What made rugby interesting for many people over the summer was the Harlequins blood sub controversy, which spilled into the close season. Barnes acknowledges the impact of the story.

“It’s astonishing. The story was much better than the incident and how it reached way beyond rugby. It became the biggest rugby story in England since winning the World Cup, which is desperate.

“You can demonise people and create headlines but given the pictures of Tom Williams, and the evidence of getting blood capsules from a joke shop in Clapham Junction — it was an extraordinary combination of gallows humour and great pictures.

“But five weeks into the season, I don’t think it’s making that big a difference. I think the Bath drugs story was a non-story — blokes in their 20s taking coke is something that happens on the streets of Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff every weekend.

“With the Quins incident I find it difficult to be overly critical of cheating — take the ‘hand of Back’ incident. I played for a Bath side that didn’t play for money but won because we had to win, to have the glory of winning. So, if Alan Quinlan got Fabien Pelous sin-binned with his back-handed tricks in the Heineken Cup final — I gave him my man-of-the-match award.

“There’s a hell of a change in the political climate of rugby, though, and I don’t know if I’d do that now. I’ve moved from ‘we did what we had to do to win’ to ‘just because we did it, that’s not necessarily the right thing to do’.

“I think it’s incredibly hard on Dean Richards, a lot of directors of rugby have done similar things — it’s not that different from the likes of Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards and uncontested scrums with Wasps. And they’re feted names.

“I feel for Dean because I think a three-year ban is cruel and unfair on him, but if that kind of treatment is what makes people think about the game, then in the long term it may be good.”

Was ‘bloodgate’ just the ugly side of professionalism, then?

“I don’t think so. We’ve talked about Neil Back, Alan Quinlan, Dean Richards — all those individuals, and teams like Bath, had one thing in common. They’re out-and-out winners. In our day it wasn’t a matter of money and I’m sure for the Munster players, against Biarritz and Toulouse in those European finals, it wasn’t a matter of money either.”

BARNES is a man for the beautiful game, so it’s no surprise to hear him nominate a French flier as his man to watch this season in the Heineken Cup.

“Maxime Medard of Toulouse — I’ve been watching him since he was 18, and he showed signs of greatness then, and now it’s coming through.

“If Toulouse decide to play consistently, then this guy will be crucial. He’s learned his trade from Cedric Heymans, so clever in a tight area, Vincent Clerc, Clement Poitrenaud — brilliant players, but flawed — and Medard seems to have taken on their brilliance but appears to be far more focused when defending, in particular. I think he’s probably the most exciting player in the world.”

The player he’s enjoyed watching for the last decade is more familiar.

“I talked about him during the Lions tour and I have never backed down in my admiration for Brian O’Driscoll. It may not go down well in Munster but I felt he should have been Lions captain before the tour, felt it during the tour and I feel it now.

“He showed leadership, and that’s not to decry Paul O’Connell. He’s a good leader but O’Driscoll showed exceptional leadership. He’s not always the easiest with the media, he’s had a reputation, but he means business. And in defeat against Pretoria, when he took on Matfield and the other big South Africans... that was heroism. Mad, but heroism.

“Take his determination in the Grand Slam win, his efforts in South Africa, what he did with the Lions in 2001... you can’t dispute the word ‘greatness’. That’s a word that’s overused, but I think Brian O’Driscoll is the greatest European rugby player of the professional era. Without doubt.

“Maxine Medard is the one I want to see. If I were still playing, O’Driscoll is the one I’d want outside me."

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