After a lengthy decision process, the ERC panel has decided its European dream team. It couldn’t have been an easy task.
To decide on the best 15 players over the last 15 years involves discerning judgement and an in-depth knowledge of rugby. The panel was comprised of some of the most highly regarded figures in European rugby. But the final selection was always going to spark a heated debate.
All the players have Heineken Cup winner’s medals, with the exception of Sylvain Marconnet who was a losing finalist with Stade Francais in 2005. The team is dominated by French and Irish players, with six and five respectively. Wales, England and Australia through Rocky Elsom, are also represented. Scotland and Italy may be disappointed but their exclusion seems only fair considering their lack of success.
While there was never going to be full agreement in all the positions, there were some names that would have been in everyone’s team sheets. Yannick Jauzion, Ronan O’Gara, and Anthony Foley were certainties.
Jauzion has been a pivotal force in Stade Toulousain’s successes over the last seven years. With 91 European Cup caps and 1,138 points, O’Gara’s selection was never in doubt. Foley was the driving force behind many Munster wins. A great reader of the game, he had the ability to always be in the right place at the right time.
Other Irish players who made the cut are Geordan Murphy, Brian O’Driscoll and David Wallace. Murphy was central to Leicester’s wins in 2000 and 2002.
O’Driscoll seemed to be mired in European under-achievement in his native province, but all that changed last season when Leinster finally fulfilled their potential last season. He is one of the world’s best players and his eventual success sealed his inclusion.
Wallace has had so many memorable moments in the last 13 years that it is hard to single out a few. His ability to swat would-be defenders out of his path and his searing line-breaks made him one of Europe’s most exciting back rows, and edged him past the Welsh stalwart, Martyn Williams.
Perhaps the most hotly contested position is the second row.
Paul O’Connell can feel aggrieved but his career is continuing and perhaps the next time such a selection will be made, he will be an automatic starter. Martin Johnson nudged his team-mate Ben Kay out and Fabien Pelous has been the heart and soul of so much of Toulouse’s victories.
Scrum-half was also a difficult choice. Rob Howley pipped Austin Healey and Peter Stringer in what must have been a tight contest.
One selection that has mystified me is the choice of Elsom as blind-side flanker. If you were selecting a team based on the best performances from one particular season, Elsom would have to be picked. The impact he made at Leinster was immense and merited his inclusion as a nominee.
But each of the other nominees has contributed far more over a longer period. Martin Corry and Alan Quinlan could easily have been selected ahead of Elsom, and there is even an argument for moving the old Wasps warhorse, Lawrence Dallaglio, up from number eight to the blindside.
Vincent Clerc is a worthy starter on the wing but one of the best wingers I have played against during my career was Cedric Heymans. The bustling, all-action speedster has had 13 seasons in the European cup, starting with his involvement in Brive’s cup-winning season in 1997. He has played in five finals and has three winner’s medals. Excluding Heymans was a mistake.
Nobody could argue with Christian Califano’s selection at loose head. He was a rock-solid prop with electric pace. He binds onto a worthy starter at hooker in William Servat; however he must have been pushed hard by Ibanez and Mario Ledesma.
The biggest travesty in this selection is at tighthead. Not including John Hayes is bizarre. He has 93 caps in Europe, more than any other player, and has been the cornerstone of Munster’s successes for 12 seasons. He has played in four finals and has two winner’s medals. The big man has had many memorable moments but a stand-out memory is his opening try against Toulouse in the 2000 semi final in Bordeaux. Hayes, however, won’t be bothered. He’s not interested in the limelight and will be happy that he won’t have to attend an official gala function. That’s not really his scene.
For each of the players selected, this accolade is ultimately just a pleasant recognition of their achievements. But nothing more. What made these players great is their ambition, hunger and ability to win. Winning cups is the ultimate prize. And all of them would choose this over any individual award.