House-to-house inquiries across the rugby centres of Europe have revealed a disturbing fact. As of late last night, only six Irish survivors were left in the Champions’ Cup.
They will not take much accounting — one director of rugby (Mark McCall at Saracens), two coaches (Ronan O’Gara at Racing, Geordan Murphy at Leicester), one player (JJ Hanrahan at Northampton), another as yet unable to make a bow (Paul O’Connell at Toulon) and a club owner, Derek Richardson, who has Wasps abuzz as never before.
The seven fat years, from Munster’s double to Leinster’s treble, lasted longer than anyone dared reasonably hope. The biblical analogy decreed that it would end one day but nobody can have imagined it would come to this.
The last trace of green on Europe’s rugby map has been washed away, replaced by buckets of the red, white and blue of England and France. The Celts have been eliminated en masse from the last eight of the European elite and that has never happened before since the tournament began 20 years ago.
Worse still, it has been painful to watch how the once mighty have fallen – Leinster shipping a record number of points before breaking up on the rocks. The Scarlets, current leaders of the Guinness Pro12, had beaten them to it, engulfed by nine tries in Paris the previous week and all washed up without winning a game.
Had that sort of mayhem happened during the Grand National at Aintree, the League of Cruel Sports would have had a field day. The Anglo-French monopoly will have raised some serious questions for those running the Champions’ Cup.
Four of the six competing countries have been wiped out, almost at a stroke. Italy’s lone qualifier was never going to make it but the rest had real contenders, nobody more so than Scotland with their Pro12 champions, the Warriors from Glasgow.
Wales could always count on the Ospreys, or so they thought. At least they were the last to go last night, although that had more to do with television scheduling than anything else.
A win at Exeter would have done the trick and got them out of the pool nobody wanted to win. When push came to shove, Ospreys failed on the road in Europe as they have done wherever they have gone, not over six games but over six years.
For the first time, all four teams in the same pool finished up with three wins and three defeats. Clermont would have gone from bottom to top had Morgan Parra not kicked a penalty in front of the posts instead of running it when a losing bonus point would have made all the difference.
If nothing else, his confusion ensured that his employers maintain their record as the best club not to have won the big one. Exeter made it instead and if that gave the English Premiership an unprecedented five quarter-finalists, romantics the world over will admire what the Chiefs have achieved down on their reservation in Devon.
Ten years ago, when Munster under Anthony Foley were on their rampaging way to conquering Europe for the first time, the Chiefs were roaming around in a suburb of Greater Manchester, being scalped by Sedgley Park before a crowd of 425.
Now they are in the quarter-finals of the Champions’ Cup and five former champions — Toulouse, Bath, Munster, Leinster, Ulster — are nowhere to be seen. You couldn’t make it up.
Caryl Chessman achieved global notoriety in post-war California by winning eight stays of execution on death row at San Quentin. Ulster’s players and fans will have a rough idea this morning of what it must have been like.
The kind of emotional wringer they went through over the weekend redefined the old cliché that a lot can happen in 24 hours. Never before can one team have been reprieved so often in such a short time, all to no avail.
Chessman dragged his survival out over 12 years. Ulster’s ran out over a period of hours despite three stays of execution after they had given Oyonnax a predictably riotous introduction to Belfast.
The fact Ireland’s last contender had surged home on a flood of tries gave them hope, no matter how fleeting. At round 2.30pm on Saturday they were putatively ranked at No 6 on the flimsy basis the other contenders had still to take their turn. When it mattered most for Ulster, all the guff spouted these days about ‘scoreboard pressure’ counted for nothing. Leinster’s implosion at Wasps promptly pushed the northerners down to No. 7 which made its viewing in Belfast almost as painful as in Dublin.
For Ulster, the suffering went on into Saturday night and the later it got, the worse their predicament became. By the time the Scarlets had ensured Northampton left ‘heart and soul rugby country’ with a five-point lifeline, Ulster were down to No. 8 and sinking.
They were still looking for straws when the last stay of execution vanished with Stade Francais’ home win over Leicester. By then the Oyonnax win had been reduced to nothing more meaningful than a frivolous frolic.
Down the centuries, from Joan of Arc to Charles de Gaulle via Napoleon Bonaparte, some seriously big French hitters have not been overly fussed about the English.
Now, arguably the noisiest mover-and-shaker from the other side of the Channel hasn’t just bucked the historical trend but turned it upside down — a subject he addresses in a special message: Bonjour, mes amis. It’s me, marvellous Mourad, Mourad Boudjellal — you know the revolutionary of rugby, the one who owns the Champions’ Cup and also the biggest man in the whole of Munster. You know, Paulie. Now they call me Mad Mourad. They think I am loco because I say I love the English so much that I desire to take my team, RC Toulonnais, out of France and into the English League. You think this is about money because I have issues in France with the salary cap? For sure, the economic future is better in England than in France, given how the two leagues are run.
People think I am, how you say, playing a joke, but this is no joke. Ian Ritchie at the RFU says this is ‘a bolt out of the blue’ which is not a saying we know in Francebut we will see what happens.
I am serious, and now I see the Welsh Rugby Union is taking notice. Gareth Davies, their president, says maybe in some years there will be a new European competition. I just want to get Toulon playing in the English League and now he’s talking of a European League. Sacré bleu!
According to the official Champions’ Cup website, an old English Lion made the ultimate comeback yesterday at the age of 58. It was there in black and white – ‘Wade Dooley converts, Exeter 33 Ospreys 17.’
A colossal second-row forward from an amateur era when he and his kind imposed their own justice on the hoof, Dooley no doubt made all manner of conversions but never off the kicking tee. Will Hooley did it yesterday which only goes to show that where there’s a Will, there’s a Wade…
Coaches tend to have a chronic habit of talking the opposition up, eminently sensible if the other lot happen to be Barcelona but not when they’re more likely to be the equivalent of Newport County.
Ulster’s Les Kiss on Oyonnax, second from bottom of the French Top 14: “They are a good team and they will provide a big challenge for us.’
No, they aren’t. And no, they won’t.
Munster’s Anthony Foley on yesterday’s concluding mission: “They know going to Italy’s going to be tough because Treviso are packed with internationals wanting to take another scalp.”
They haven’t taken one for 11 months and now it’s 25 straight defeats on the spin.
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