Peter O’Toole and the Michelin Men of the Auvergne share something in common which has nothing to do with the strange fact that the late thespian graduated from playing Rugby League for Raggy-Arsed Rovers in Hunslet to Lawrence of Arabia.
Not even Stephen Spielberg’s all-time favourite movie could save O’Toole from being the best actor never to win an Oscar despite eight Academy Award nominations. As the best rugby club not to have won the Champions’ Cup, Clermont will know how one of Munster’s more celebrated supporters must have felt.
They may not have managed that many as yet but they are getting there. Into the last eight for the fifth time in six seasons, they are the team the other seven will be happy to sidestep until the final at Murrayfield.
After two losing finals and two losing semi-finals, Clermont are back at the top of the ladder, perched one rung above Munster, two above Saracens and three above Leinster. They have six titles between them, six more than Les Jaunards who have surely exhausted every means of how to lose the big prize.
As No 1 seeds, they have been there before only to suffer a recurring failure to justify their billing but then so has every other top qualifier over the last 21 seasons with one exception — Munster.
That they, and they alone, have done it on the road underlines the priceless value of a home quarter.
Munster under Paul O’Connell succeeded against the odds when they last painted Europe red nine years ago, beating Gloucester at Kingsholm in the last eight, Saracens at the Ricoh Arena in the semis, and Toulouse at Irish rugby’s favourite home from home in Cardiff.
As if to show that some things never change, the old emperors will be back in Limerick when the serious stuff begins post-Six Nations in April. While they would rather be going somewhere else, Toulouse will be grateful just to be there after Connacht took them the distance.
After 25 home wins in 26 matches against the French in Europe, Munster will be expected to make it 26 out of 27 in what will be their fifth knock-out tie against Toulouse and the first since the same stage three years ago.
Clermont, the only French team who know how it feels to take Thomond Park by storm, will rely on their 12-month- old winning home streak to dispose of Toulon, their nemesis in two recent finals.
The organisers will be turning cartwheels of delight at the return of the Celts after last year’s wipe-out from the last eight. The Pied Piper effect of Ireland’s big two will guarantee the crowds in numbers sorely missed last year, all the more so should they make the semis.
If they get there, Munster will have the added incentive of a semi-final in Dublin, probably against Saracens.
Leinster’s reward for seeing off the Irish-owned Wasps will take them to France in the last four and a crack at ensuring Clermont’s wait for their coronation, like O’Toole’s, continues…
Toasting Warriors’ long-awaited Tigers revenge
Whiskey-drinking Glaswegians aware that their sporting city has more to offer than Celtic and Rangers will have raised a wee dram last night to a recovery of Lazarene dimension.
They say everything comes to those who wait but rarely can anyone have waited quite so long for restitution on such a damaging scale than the city’s oft-neglected rugby club, the Warriors. The last time their predecessors went to Leicester with a quarter-final at stake, they were destroyed as no team had been destroyed before.
By the time the ravenous Tigers had finished making easy meat of their prey, Glasgow had conceded 14 tries and 90 points in losing by 71. They could spend the rest of their lives waiting for a little compensation and get nothing.
It’s taken the Warriors fully 20 years but now, glory be, they have settled the most painful of scores. In doing so, Gregor Townsend’s contenders brought Leicester’s house down around their ears, reducing Welford Road to a state best described by President Trump’s ominous buzzword,.
In condemning England’s once mightiest club to their biggest hiding of all, eclipsing the 38-0 pasting in Limerick before Christmas, the Warriors raised it to 43-0. And that’s only the half of it. The number has to be as good as doubled by adding in the first leg at Scotstoun.
That makes the aggregate score even more striking: Warriors 85, Leicester 13.
In other words a 72-point margin, every single point from two decades earlier accounted for and one extra for old time’s sake.
The Warriors’ ringmaster, fly-half Finn Russell, was five in 1997. Just as Celtic’s 1967 European champions all came from a 30-mile radius of Glasgow, who’s to say that the all-Scottish qualified Warriors have no chance of emulating the ‘Lisbon Lions’ of 50 years ago?
No time to look away in Sarries’ humdinger
The sheer ferocity of the Champions’ Cup can be gauged not merely by the number of casualties but by how long games now take.
The Saracens-Toulon power struggle, for example, ran for almost 109 minutes, virtually half an hour’s worth of stoppage time.
Mercifully, there were no serious injuries, few shots at goal and even fewer references to the TMO, largely on account of the referee. Nigel Owens went to the man-in-the-van just twice.
The four place kicks took up fewer than four minutes compared to nine shots during the Warriors-Munster duel the previous week eating up more than 10 minutes.
It meant that the rest of the time at Saracens went on running repairs and substitutions. It did not detract one iota from a humdinger of a match without any cause for recourse to a yellow card.
Leicester’s collapse baffling
Leicester’s implosion, from perennial contenders to chopping blocks, takes some believing. They scored three tries in the six pool rounds, fewer than anyone else. Even Zebre managed four times as many. Acting Tigers’s head coach, Aaron Mauger, did the decent thing and apologised.
Another European weekend, another question
When did anyone last catch sight of a straight feed at the scrum? No sightings, either, of a drop goal, although there were two attempts, one by Owen Farrell, above, from 40 metres. The other, by Glasgow’s Finn Russell, at Leicester, also missed, but the Warriors were 31 points clear at the time. What Connacht would have given for one in Toulouse, only they know.
Best and the worst
Toulon wing Josua Tuisova’s one-handed fumble in-goal against Saracens.
Three French teams in the Challenge Cup (Bayonne, Grenoble, Pau): Played 18, won 1, lost 17. Tries conceded: 102. What is the point….?
Sky Sports’ Mark Robson on a lacerating break from Bordeaux full-back Cros during another lost cause for Ulster head coach Les Kiss: ‘Geoffrey Cros – Kiss livid.’’