gets over the gain line, behind the headline
Lyon never fail to leave the indelible impression that they would rather be anywhere than stuck in Europe’s foremost competition — so much so that you wouldn’t be surprised were head coach Pierre Mignoni to be replaced in the technical area by a Mr N. Farage of the UK’s Brexit party.
For a club seemingly bent on rushing to the exit for a second successive season, getting there doesn’t sound fast enough, even if they are on track to be out early in the new year, at the latest.
For sheer consistency, Lyon’s record in the Champions’ Cup puts them in a class of their own: played eight, lost eight, average losing margin: 17 points. Their latest failure, after a truly forgettable home tie against Leinster, will provoke a few questions from those baffled by Lyon’s domestic status.
Is this not the same Lyon that has swept almost all before them in the Top 14 to lead the field five points? That have won eight matches out of nine?
The team that are 15 points clear of Toulon, 16 ahead of Toulouse, and 17 above Racing, all of whom they have beaten?
Indeed they are, which makes their record in Europe — one point out of 40 — all the more baffling, unless, of course, they consider it an irrelevance, a distraction from the real goal of winning the French title.
That might explain a lot, not least why head coach Pierre Mignoni confronted Leinster without almost half the starting XV responsible for trouncing La Rochelle 45-17 the previous week.
Those conspicuous by their absence including Fiji wing Josua Tuisova and the new wonderboy of the French game, 20-year-old centre Pierre-Louis Barassi.
Is it 80 games since Munster last dropped a goal?
Some revealing facts can be laid bare today about the once symbiotic relationship between Munster and the drop goal, a weapon that never seemed to fail in the hands of Ronan O’Gara.
Those weaned on the master alchemist turning molten metal into pure gold on epic European occasions and Grand Slam deciders will be justifiably concerned over one suspicion lingering from another Saturday night of rolling thunder at Thomond. The Munster arsenal is not what it used to be.
If that sounds almost like sacrilege, then consider the facts: 80 matches and counting since Munster last dropped a goal in any competition — centre Rory Scannell at Cardiff Arms Park in the PRO12, as it was then, March 4, 2017. More than five years and counting since the last Munster drop in Europe’s blue-riband tournament, by Ian Keatley against Saracens in Limerick, October 24, 2014.
His fly half successors, JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal, have dropped one goal between them, by the New Zealander for Canterbury seven seasons ago. Far from offering that as a critical point, it should be said in their defence that the drop has long gone out of fashion.
Owen Farrell’s 1,236 goals for Saracens and England includes a mere four drops. Dimitri Yachvili managed fewer still, two out of 1,211 goals for Gloucester, Biarritz and France. Leigh Halfpenny’s career total of almost 800 does not include any drops because the Welshman has yet to kick one.
In a bygone age, the Springbok Naas Botha turned the drop goal into a cottage industry, a total of more than 200 inspiring the nickname ‘Nasty Booter.’ Twenty years ago another South African, the evangelist Jannie de Beer, gave the finest exhibition I have ever witnessed: five drops in 32 minutes during a World Cup quarter-final, all but one from beyond the English 10-metre line.
As the man himself will tell you: ‘’The Lord gave me the talent. The forwards gave me the ball. It was a team effort.”
Of the 40 clubs, provinces, regions in Europe’s three major Leagues last season, almost 70 per cent, 27, didn’t drop a solitary goal, amongst them Leinster, Ulster, Saracens, Racing.
Munster, therefore, are in good company but they know better than any one that there are times when the drop is not merely the best option. It is the only one.
Joel Stransky and Jonny Wilkinson realised that in winning the only two World Cup finals to go to extra time. Nick Evans’ wondrous low-flying projectile dug out of the mud after 29 phases for Harlequins against Stade Francais ten years ago took some beating.
Two years later O’Gara knocked it into a cocked hat, raising the art to untouchable heights after 41-phases to beat Northampton in Limerick. Just to show it was no freak, he gave an encore the following week at Castres.
That the execution is often fiendishly difficult, without the small matter of the result depending on the outcome, may explain why so few are spotted.
Hanrahan needs no advising on that subject but Munster still owe him a debt of gratitude, for the monstrous touchline conversion that gave them a draw they didn’t deserve.
Sing when they’re losing
Love for England and all things English has always been thin on the ground in Wales — all the more so when it comes to rugby, as Bonymaen demonstrated on the day of the World Cup final.
A junior club in Swansea, blue-collar and proud of it, released a video showing clubhouse reaction to the immediate aftermath of England losing the World Cup final.
A group of members, each resplendent in Springbok jerseys, bellowed their approval, then broke into their version of ‘Sweet Chariot’, as in: ‘You can shove the fucking chariot up your arse’.
Geordan Murphy knows all about the reassuring welcome in the hillsides that is reserved for those connected with English teams on business west of the Severn.
“I’ve been called some choice names by the public when I’ve come down here,” he said at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday night. “Even though I’m not English.” A Grand Slam winner in the same city 10 years ago, Leicester’s favourite Irishman had the last laugh, a last-minute penalty giving the Tigers a Challenge Cup win over Cardiff Blues.
A decade ago, the clubs met on the big stage next door in a Champions Cup semi-final which featured the first, and so far only, penalty shootout, a contest settled in the Tigers’ favour by Jordan Crane, a back-row forward who had been a goalkeeper at West Bromwich Albion.
Age no barrier for Wihongi
They called Archie Moore ageless because nobody knew for sure how old the oldest world light-heavyweight champion really was, other than that he was in his 40s. Castres prop Karena Wihongi will know how he felt.
The New Zealander is two months into his 41st year but still holding the scrum up in European competition after almost 20 years in France. He is the senior member of a pack with ample reason to be thankful that rugby is still a place for old men.
The Methusalah Men: Karena Wihongi (Castres) 40, Elvis Taione (Exeter) 36, Davit Zirakashvili (Clermont) 36; Rodrgio Capo-Ortega (Castres) 39, Donnacha Ryan (Racing) 36, next month; Julien Puricelli (Lyon) 38, Jerome Kaino (Toulouse) 36, Sergio Parisse (Toulon) 36.
Russell’s magic megs
Benetton Treviso denied a draw against Northampton because none of the Scottish officials appeared to notice a forward pass by the Saints before the deliberate knock-on which cost them the game. Fly half Tomasso Allan’s plea fell on deaf ears.
Finn Russell’s grubber against Munster, ‘nutmegging’ Rory Scannell into the bargain.
- 1, Munster 21 Racing 21
- 2, Ulster 18 Clermont 13
- 3, Montpellier 30 Gloucester 27
15 Elliot Daly (Saracens) 14 Teddy Thomas (Racing) 13 Henry Slade (Exeter) 12 Robert de Preez (Sale) 11 Juan Imhoff (Racing) 10 Finn Russell (Racing) 9 John Cooney (Ulster) 1 Cyril Baille (Toulouse) 2 Hame Favia (Benetton) 3 Demba Bamba (Lyon) 4 James Ryan (Leinster) 5 Iain Henderson (Ulster) 6 Tom Curry (Sale) 7 Jordi Murphy (Ulster) 8 Marcell Coetzee (Ulster)
Quotes of the week
– Matthew Carley to Munster wing Andrew Conway during an impressive performance by the English referee.
– Another English referee, Luke Pearce, warning Lyon scrum half Baptiste Couilloud against Leinster.