Every once in a while whenever the notion takes them, the gods decide to even up the score and divert the course of history.
They arrange these things by pulling not only the strings of the puppets and the puppeteers but their hamstrings as well as their heart strings.
Nor are they averse when the situation demands to throwing a spanner into the works of any goalkicker under the sun, thereby engineering the ugliest of shanks.
For those who preordain such mishaps, no twist of fate is ever too devious to ensure that the decent thing is done. And so it duly came to pass in the novel setting of a footballing bastion of the Basque Country, a sequence of events which conspired to put a stop to the anguish endured by Irish rugby’s favourite Englishman.
The last time Stuart Lancaster presided over a team in front of more than 50,000 people, at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, he had been in charge of an England squad counted out of their own World Cup before they could get to the knockout stage, an occasion that could not have been more funereal had the doomed hosts entered the arena behind a hearse.
Had Leo Cullen not been blessed with the gumption to offer him a refuge from the public vilification across the water, Lancaster would never have been been able to signal his arrival by informing the entire Leinster squad that they would be conquering Europe again soon enough.
The prediction took some believing within a dressing room smarting over a hopeless failure to make the last eight the previous season, one made all the more miserable by the fact that the threequarters managed the sum total of one try over the six pool rounds.
The game plan the gods brought to Bilbao would have made Machiavelli look like a straight shooter.
Each sub-plot proved to be more devious than the one before, starting pre-match with Dan Carter’s hamstring twinge which assured Leinster that when push came to shove, the finest fly half of the professional era would be safely out of shot.
Others would have to suffer, notably Racing’s president Jacky Lorenzetti, a property magnate whose vineyard in the Medoc is said to yield some 8,000 cases of vin rouge every year.
It was as if Someone Up There decreed that Carter and Lorenzetti had won enough and made enough, a rationale which may have explained why Usain Bolt pulled up lame in his last race last year.
Within two and a half minutes of kicking off, another accident befell Racing.
Patrick Lambie’s first contact put him out of action which meant that the challengers had lost their first, second, and third goalkickers, starting with Maxime Machenaud stricken the previous weekend.
Even then, Lorenzetti would not have seen his Usain Bolt or Arsene Wenger moment coming, and with good reason. Leinster, who had averaged almost four tries a game in getting to the final, would not score one.
Racing had the best player on the field in their emergency scrum half, Teddy Iribaren. They stayed one penalty in front until six minutes from the end, subjected Cullen to some ‘pretty painful watching’ and only fell behind with less than two to go.
Lancaster would have felt it, too, perhaps sensing that Racing deserved to take them beyond the distance into extra-time. He need not have worried. The gods who deserted him through the torment of the World Cup were with him this time, every step of the way.
Evening up the score still required one last fall guy. Remi Tales, Racing’s third-DFatchoice fly half who had kicked just the one goal all season, unwittingly filled the role, straying far enough off-side to catch the beady eye of the legal-eagle Wayne Barnes.
Tales’ shank with the last kick compounded his misery, leaving Remi to clutch his head in tortured anguish while Parisians the world over would have been clutching for a Remy of their own.
Sport can be a cruel business as Stuart Lancaster knows better than most.
Team of season
The best team in Europe have turned my Champions’ Cup XV of the season into Leinster and the rest, justifiable recognition of how far they have been ahead of the game.
All they have to do now is prove they are still the best in Ireland, against Munster in the PRO14 semi-final on Saturday.
My Champions’ Cup team:
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
14. Keith Earls (Munster)
13. Garry Ringrose (Leinster)
12. Owen Farrell (Saracens)
11. Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
9. Conor Murray (Munster)
1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
2. Ken Owens (Scarlets)
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
4. James Ryan (Leinster)
5. Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92)
6. Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets)
7. Dan Leavy (Leinster)
8. Yannick Nyanga (Racing).
Filise by far the oldest European final medal winner
Taufa’ao Filise didn’t merely become the oldest player to win a European final in Bilbao last Friday. Cardiff’s Tongan destroyed the record with the pulverising force of a ten-tonne scrum machine.
Sebastien Bruno’s benchmark for longevity, set at 38 when Toulon beat Clermont in Dublin five years ago, had been obliterated. Filise will be 41 on Sunday week, according to official records.
Others think he is older, a suspicion reminiscent of another heavyweight widely acknowledged as having been older than he ever admitted, or knew.
Sonny Liston claimed to have been coming up 32 when he lost the world title to a cocky kid called Cassius Clay in February 1964. Some experts thought Liston was 36 even if he happened to look nearer 46.
And so to Filise. A former Blues’ team-mate turned pundit, Martyn ‘Nugget’ Williams, thinks the most durable of tightheads could be considerably older than 41, older, in fact, than Williams who will be 43 this year.
Respect for the kicker taken to the limit
A Japanese tourist taking his seat on the first morning of a four-day county cricket match looked suitably perplexed.
‘What is this?’ he asked to be told: ‘Cricket. It’s a bit like baseball.’
He looked at his watch: ‘When does it finish?’
‘Friday.’ ‘But this is Tuesday.’
He left shaking his head. The locals in and around Bilbao unable to distinguish a ruck from a maul would have been shaking theirs at exposure to big-time Rugby Union. They, too, would have had a question: How much time does it take for all those penalties?
According to my primitive chronology, they amounted to 15 minutes, give or take a few seconds.
In other words the blast of the referee’s whistle to launching the ball towards goal took an average of at least 75 seconds.
The law allows a kicker 60 seconds from pointing to the posts to put the ball between them. Johnny Sexton went ten seconds over-time on his first kick and longer still on the one he miscued. The law makes it clear: take too long and the kick is disallowed.
As per usual nobody said a word in which event why put it in the law book? This is no criticism of the admirable Wayne Barnes but it seemed strange that the only time he was heard making any comment on the time factor concerned the match-winner.
“It has to be kicked by 78.41,” Barnes told Isa Nacewa. Far from calling for a cup of tea, Leinster’s master craftsman wasted no time chipping the winner with half a minute plus to spare.
Racing continue not so proud tradition
When it comes to losing European finals, nobody does it more often than the French. The name may have changed to the Champions’ Cup, a rather grandiose misnomer if ever there was one, but the trend continues.
Where English contenders have lost on five occasions (Leicester three times, Northampton, Saracens), the Irish three times (Munster twice, Ulster) and the Welsh once (Cardiff Blues), French teams have managed it on 14 occasions – Clermont three times, Toulouse, Racing, Stade Francais, Biarritz all twice, Brive, Colomiers and Perpignan once.
If motivation is required...
Johnny Sexton had never heard of Tom Brady until Stuart Lancaster told him about the New England Patriots’ quarter-back winning a fifth Superbowl at 39, thereby firing the Dubliner’s bid for longevity on a similar scale.
Lancaster could now do worse than tell the Leinster lads about two other historical figures in American sport. One concerns a world heavyweight champion from the Twenties whom the Irish have not been slow to claim as one of their own, Jack Dempsey.
The Manassa Mauler’s most famous quote would have summed Leinster up to a tee: ‘A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.’
The other, Leo Durocher, a fearsome baseballer who managed the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs, called his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last.
Having smashed that idea out of the ballpark, Lancaster will probably leave it be. Boasting has never been his style.
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