Having backed Toulon and Clermont to produce a decent spectacle in the European Champions Cup final, I’m glad to say we weren’t disappointed.
It was a cracking game. For Drew Mitchell and Nick Abendanon to produce individual tries of that quality on the biggest stage of the year speaks volumes for their ability to perform under pressure.
Clermont were flying for 15 minutes but when Napolioni Nalaga failed to score, losing the ball when up against Bryan Habana, you knew it was a big moment. Mentally, they were shot at half-time, everyone knew the game was Toulon’s then.
It was notable, that many of the game’s key moments - including the Mathieu Bastareaud try just before the break that turned the game and gave Toulon that key psychological advantage - came from kicking inaccuracies. Abendanon hoofed the ball downfield when he should have put it out, while Habana’s ill-advised up-and-under from his own line gave Abendanon the chance to chip and collect for his superb score.
That’s 14 points in a tight game, just from kicking mistakes. I’ve spoken a lot this season about the importance of tactical kicking, and from an Irish perspective, only Johnny Sexton has the consistency required in that regard at the moment.
The biggest challenge facing the three out-halves underneath him is to achieve that same consistency with their kicks out of hand. Two of those players, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley, will get an opportunity to show Joe Schmidt they are on the right path in that regard in the weekend’s big Pro12 clash between Ulster and Munster.
I have a lot of time for Jackson. He has suffered frustration with a lot of injuries, having missed out on some big days in Irish rugby, but he could be finding form in time to be around for some of the biggest days of all at the World Cup.
He’s a super youngfella with a great attitude, and although he has rough edges, he gets the best out of Darren Cave, who is a key man for Ulster.
Cave has been highly effective for Ulster in the Pro12 and Champions Cup, in an environment where he believes in himself and has confidence in what he can do. He hasn’t yet transferred that to the green jersey, but he’s a potential bolter for the World Cup.
There are fascinating battles in other areas too; take the back row for a start, with Tommy O’Donnell, Chris Henry, Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson all looking to show Schmidt they can do a job in England later this year. The same goes for Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls further out.
A major thing I’ve learned since switching from playing to coaching is that when it comes to selection decisions, the latest memories are the ones that can stick in a coach’s mind. You have to take each individual case on its own merits of course, and for fellas with massive experience like Paul O’Connell or Tommy Bowe, the rules are different. But if you’re a guy who isn’t certain of his place in a starting 15 or in the World Cup squad full stop, you’ll want to hit some form around now.
The Kingspan Stadium clash has a lot riding on it for the teams as well as the individuals involved, and shows how the linking of the domestic league to European seeding has helped the Pro12 gets its credibility back, with players, management, the public and the media now more interested in it. I played in Ravenhill a lot as a young player with Munster, but was rarely sent up there in the following years; it wasn’t really as big a game for us as others, but this time you’ll have full-strength teams really going for it.
Munster found out to their cost how important seeding for next year’s competition will be after failing to get out of a pool with Clermont and Saracens in it, and Leinster are likely to pay a heavy price next year for finishing outside the top four. There’s far fewer dead rubbers in the Pro12 at this time of year than there used to be, as almost everyone has something to play for.
The top four is, admittedly, already a done deal but there’s a massive incentive for Ulster with the final being at home. With the record they have up there it will be a big ask for Munster to win, but then there’s not as much pressure for them given Ulster have to go to Glasgow on the last day while Munster have a handier home game against the Dragons.
Should they get a result, though, it’ll be massive as it would likely leave them with a home semi-final against Ulster. And having won four of their five interpro games this season - the New Year’s Day loss to Connacht in Galway was their sole defeat - it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. Although Ulster won in Thomond Park in the 2012 Heineken Cup quarter-finals, I couldn’t see them doing so again. The pressure is all on the northern province for this one.
My focus this weekend will be on a different derby, though, as Racing Metro host Stade Francais in an all-Parisian Top 14 clash at the Stade Yves du Manoir. It’s fourth against fifth with both teams gunning for the playoffs; forget about when Toulon or Clermont come to town, this is the biggest game of the season for us.
It’s not the same as an interpro back home; we are a small blot on a big copybook in Paris, and the whole city won’t be consumed by it. When there’s a big game in Thomond or the Aviva, the whole of Limerick or Dublin knows about it, but not here. There also aren’t as many one-club men due to the greater movement of players here, which dilutes it a bit.
The game will still be a sell-out, though, and for guys like Henry Chavency, who has been playing for Racing since he was 11 years-old, and Dmitri Szarzewski - who spent seven years at Stade before joining Racing - it’s a huge occasion. They will set the tone for everyone else. We badly need to find some form, having let Montpellier sneak a draw when we had them dead and buried, then losing to a last-minute kick against Saracens before an astonishing video referee decision cost us against Oyonnax. Lots of guys are moving on at the end of the season - Sexton back to Leinster, Jamie Roberts to Harlequins - so just like Munster and Ulster, we need to try and keep the show on the road for a few more weeks yet.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved