Leinster’s exodus to the cultural capital of the Basque Country offers their oldest player the prospect of putting himself on a pedestal alongside Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, writes Peter Jackson.
Isa Nacewa will be as surprised as anyone to learn that he stands one more European Cup final victory away from emulating a pair of footballers whose combined personal fortunes are estimated at some way north of €400 million.
Ronaldo and Messi have each won four Champions League titles. Nacewa, the only player to have appeared in every minute of Leinster’s three triumphant Champions Cup campaigns, will be the first to make it four should the No. 1 seeds justify their status in Bilbao on May 12.
Not bad for the ultimate team player who retired five years ago before resurrecting his career at 32, a fact which will chime with Alex Ferguson’s views on the subject. The supreme exponent of the ruck-‘n-roll footballing business during his reign at Old Trafford could do worse than add his acclamation of the ageless New Zealander, 35 going on 36 and a man definitely after his own heart.
Ferguson, of course, decided to give up running Manchester United in the summer of 2002, then changed his mind and carried on cleaning up a dozen or so trophies in the next 11 years before deciding his time to go had come at 71. “The notion of a retirement age is anathema to me,” he once said. “There should be a law against it.”
Nacewa will probably agree. At a time when all his contemporaries from the early days have long run out of steam, he keeps going at the highest level, a wonder of the 21st century. No other player in the second half of his thirties can still pick off the best in the business anywhere behind the scrum, from 10 to 15.
Despite the ferocious competition for a starting place, Nacewa has been a virtual fixture throughout a campaign which has brought Leinster a treble of doubles against the No. 1 teams in the three major Leagues (Montpellier, Exeter, Glasgow).
Just for good measure they followed that by knocking out the holders (Saracens) and the PRO14 champions (Scarlets), inflicting upon them the heaviest defeat suffered by any British team in any semi-final anywhere. Nacewa, of course, was there for every minute of both.
Very few have appeared in more Champions Cup finals but none has been on the winning side more than three times. Most neutrals will expect him to fly home over the Bay of Biscay with a fourth winner’s medal in his pocket.
Of all rugby’s laws, none is flouted more often than the one requiring a penalty or free-kick to be taken ‘from where it is awarded or anywhere behind it on a line through the mark and parallel to the touchline.’ Failure to comply is supposed to bring its own penalty. Taking it from the wrong place requires the kick to be retaken, except that referees seem to be turning as automatic a blind eye to that as they do to crooked feeds.
In terms of breaking the law with impunity, Cardiff Blues’ Challenge Cup semi-final, against Pau, provided repeated examples of how kickers routinely pinch ground, especially when kicking out of hand for the corner. Nor is it merely a case of stealing a foot here and there.
When Jarrod Evans lined up the place-kick for the goal that ultimately secured the Blues’ entry into the final, Pau claimed that he had stolen several metres. The referee, Munster’s John Lacey, duly pushed Evans back for a 44-metre shot — the extremity of the young Welshman’s range — that cleared the bar with inches to spare.
Lacey had allowed the Blues to play lengthy advantage after a high tackle, before blowing for the penalty and therefore would have been entitled to ask for TMO guidance as to the precise scene of the crime. Whether he did or not was not clear. There is no excuse for guesswork, on the unscientific basis of ‘it happened round about here.’ If unsure, referees need only take 20 seconds to ask for the exact spot to be pinpointed.
The annoying tendency of some to turn their backs on the kicker affords him the opportunity to tee the shot up a little closer to the target, or a lot closer. For an effective antidote, rugby’s lawmakers need only look at any Premier League match, any weekend.
An aerosol can, and a sharp spray of vanishing foam to mark the penalty spot, would solve the problem at a stroke.
Of all the Irish plying their trade across the green fields of England and France, only two are left standing for next month’s finals: Racing lock, Donnacha Ryan, from Tipperary, and Gloucester’s former Ulster prop, Paddy McAllister, from Armagh.
Now that he’s gone all the way in the Champions Cup, with the Parisians, at the expense of his frazzled former Munster colleagues, Ryan must see Leinster off, if he is to join the few Irish players to conquer Europe from outside Ireland.
Nobody has done it since Eoin Reddan, for Wasps, at Twickenham, in 2007.
Another former Leinster player, Trevor Brennan, had done the trick twice by then, with Toulouse, in 2003 and 2005, just as Geordan Murphy had done with Leicester before that.
Ryan was too concerned about his ex-Munster teammates to think about the final.
“I’m bitterly disappointed for the lads,” he said, apologetically. “I know how much it means to them.”
And they, in turn, will know how much it means to him, given the abrupt nature of his exit from Thomond Park, this time last year. Who said second-row forwards had no compassion in those cauliflower ears?
Racing-Leinster will be the fourth Franco-Irish final in Europe’s premier event and the first on the continent. Ulster won the first, 21-6, against Colomiers, at Lansdowne Road, in 1999, followed by Munster’s unforgettable double in Cardiff, over Biarritz (2006) and Toulouse (2008).
Bilbao, on Saturday fortnight (May 12), will not be the first Irish-French tie to be hosted in the Basque Country. Munster’s habit of losing five successive semi-finals, at different continental venues, included one at San Sebastian, against Biarritz eight years ago.
Now that players and coaches are schooled in the art of saying a lot without really saying anything, a European weekend can be guaranteed to keep the statements of the obvious flowing. How the viewer must yearn for someone who actually says something, as Muhammad Ali used to.
Imagine ‘The Greatest’ popping up in the coaches’ bunker at Thomond Park, being asked about the state of play and replying: “If you even dream about beating me, you’d better wake up and apologise.” Or if quizzed on a bout of touchline fisticuffs offering a bit of homespun philosophy: “The service you do for others is the rent we pay for our room here on Earth.”
A random selection of the weekend soundbites offered something ever so slightly less profound:
“It’s about taking opportunities and holding onto the ball” – Pau forwards’ coach Carl Hayman.
“We have got to be physical” – Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac.
“It’s important to find the right part of the field” – Pau substitute Jamie Mackintosh.
“We’ll take it one game at a time” – Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri when asked for an opinion on the Challenge Cup final.
Veteran team of the weekend
As a nod to those who continue to defy the test of time, my team of the weekend is composed entirely of over-30s, all of whom, bar Julien Tomas, has helped put his club into a European final.
Rob Kearney (Leinster, 32); Joe Rokocoko (Racing, 34), Isa Nacewa (Leinster, 35), Ray Lee-lo (Cardiff Blues, 31) Marc Andreu (Racing, 32) Dan Carter (Racing, 36), Julien Tomas (Pau, 33), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff, 37), Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing, 35), John Afoa (Gloucester, 34), Donnacha Ryan (Racing, 34), Billy Holland (Munster, 32), Scott Fardy (Leinster, 33), Yannick Nyanga (Racing, 34), Nick Williams (Cardiff, 34)
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