The Quiet Man looking to have the final word
Mark McCall made a record-breaking start to his first crack at the European Cup as head coach of Ulster. He responded by resigning.
The province’s first home tie of the campaign in early November 2007 brought Gloucester to Ravenhill where the hosts overdid the welcome by aiding and abetting the fastest try bonus point still untouchable after all these years: 21 minutes 53 seconds.
The open-door policy meant Ulster lining up behind their posts four times after conceding tries to Lesley Vainikolo, Mike Tindall, James Simpson-Daniel and Ryan Lamb. After a weekend’s reflection, the honourable Mr McCall gave it up as a bad job the following Monday and duly left Ireland eager to tackle the same competition from a different angle.
The former Test centre from Bangor has succeeded on such a scale that he will finish his 11th season since the abrupt Ulster exit preparing for a fourth Champions’ Cup final in charge of Saracens. In other words, one final for each of those tries Gloucester ran in at the rate of one every five-and-a-bit minutes.
His first foray into European waters as coach of the nomadic ‘Fez Heads’ from a park in north London, then operating out of Watford, would have reminded him of his last with Ulster. Sarries under McCall lost their first three matches, to Clermont, Leinster and Racing, before sinking with one win out of six.
Since his elevation to overall control as Director of Rugby in 2013, McCall has taken them to four finals, two semi-finals and one quarter-final. He has presided over a Champions’ Cup consistency without parallel in the English Premiership — 50 wins and two draws from 65 ties.
Now, after three finals against French opponents, McCall finds Leinster standing between Sarries and reunification with the biggest piece of silver in the game. Deep down, he would have known it would come to this, the first Anglo-Irish final since Leinster won the second of their four finals against Northampton in Cardiff eight years ago.
At 51, McCall stands on the verge of landing a second English and European double. Whatever happens at St. James’ Park on May 11 and at Twickenham in the Gallagher Premiership final a fortnight later, the one certainty is that The Quiet Man will not be shouting the odds.
Even the sharpest of ears struggle at times to hear McCall in sotto voce mode, an inaudibility which suggests an aversion to the after-match interview as well as the pre-match one. Should he stop Leinster seizing a historic fifth Champions’ Cup crown on Tyneside, who knows McCall might break the habit of a lifetime and allow himself to revel in the limelight.
Jurgen Klopp he is not.
Veteran Kayser bids to kick losing habit
Benjamin Kayser has been losing European finals for so long, his run goes all the way back to the time when Toulouse had a Dubliner in their pack. Trevor Brennan was on the blindside of the back row for the 2005 final against Stade Francais at Murrayfield, a try-less occasion which went to extra-time.
Kayser was there at the bitter end, shoulder to shoulder with the Parisians but with nothing to show for it. For one of the most durable hookers in the game, the 18-12 defeat turned out to be an overture for more losing finals, all in the Champions’ Cup.
Four more have come and gone, starting with Leicester (lost to Leinster, 2009), followed by three with Clermont (Toulon 2013 and 2015) and Saracens (2017).
Never a man to take such setbacks lying down, no matter how demoralising, Kayser will be back for a sixth final next month, for Clermont against La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup. After 14 years, he may be about to kick the habit at long last.
Refs differ on yellow call
The Champions Cup offered a glaring example of how two of the best referees in the game came to different conclusions when confronted with the same offence.
Peter O’Mahony’s deliberate knock-on against Saracens was so blindingly obvious, it hardly needed Jerome Garces to identify it as such.
The French referee did so, penalised Munster but kept the yellow card in his pocket. Twenty four hours later in Dublin, Robbie Henshaw committed the same offence with the Leinster try-line under serious threat.
Wayne Barnes awarded Toulouse a penalty and gave Henshaw 10 minutes in the bin. England’s outstanding referee got it right during the course of a game when his 20-20 vision ensured that the French club’s Scottish lock Richie Gray did 10 minutes for an illegal hand in a ruck.
Why Garces got it wrong, only he knows. O’Mahony is probably still counting his blessings and if Harlequins’ England prop Kyle Sinckler is not doing likewise, he ought to be.
Playing waiting game at the Ricoh
Despite the Red Army turning out in force, Munster made their last stand feeling almost as empty as the serried rows of blue seats in a half-full stadium.
An attendance of 16,235 at the Ricoh Arena added up to the smallest for a semi-final in 12 years.
Perhaps some of those who thought better of sending themselves to Coventry on a dazzling Easter Saturday sensed that they would be spending too much of their money watching a protracted contest off the goalkicking tee.
The preparation seems to consume more time with the passing of the seasons.
Four first-half penalties from Owen Farrell, two from Tyler Bleyendaal, and one from Conor Murray accounted for as close to exactly 10 minutes as made no difference.
From the award of each penalty to the ball sailing between the posts took up virtually a quarter of the first 40.
Quins get the hint
Ten minutes from the end of Quins’ losing Challenge Cup semi-final at Clermont, Sinckler lifted the France flanker Arthur Iturria off his feet and flung him about like a rag doll.
“You can’t throw a player to the ground like that for no reason,” the referee, Ireland’s John Lacey, told him.
Again, no yellow card. Quins took the hint and promptly took Sinckler off rather than risk him pushing his luck any further.
Golden oldies XV
The oldies XV set for European finals weekend at St James’ Park augmented by a Toulouse trio who will be watching from afar:
15 Rob Kearney (Leinster) 33;
14 David Strettle (Saracens) 35;
13 Wesley Fofana (Clermont) 31;
12 Brad Barritt (Saracens) 32;
11 Maxime Medard (Toulouse) 32;
10 Johnny Sexton (Leinster) 33;
9 Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens) 35;
1 Michael Bent (Leinster) 33;
2 Sean Cronin (Leinster) 33;
3 Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse) 32;
4 Devin Toner (Leinster) 32;
5 Joe Tekori (Toulouse) 35;
6 Scott Fardy (Leinster) 34;
7 Schalk Burger (Saracens) 36;
8 Damien Chouly (Clermont) 33.