1st May 2012
EUROPEAN CLUB RUGBY has provided ups and downs that have given the internationals a run for their money this year. Sides who should have fallen long ago were still going strong through the knock-out stages, taking out some European rugby royalty on their way. But why is European rugby so different to those big internationals and other domestic challenges? And does the timing of the tournament cause problems for some of the sides?
There has been much discussion over the Edinburgh side who stormed to victory to steal a place in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup. The plucky Scots should have struggled hopelessly against Toulouse, especially given that many of the players were part of the limping Scottish squad seen in the 6 Nations. The international side were beaten by underdogs, Italy to take home the wooden spoon after they were unable to turn attack into points due to a try-scoring drought. Instead we saw a confident and cohesive front which battled through a tough Toulouse defence and caused uproar with the French fans. Meanwhile Cardiff Blues, whose main constituents are that of the Welsh squad, found themselves floundering, a mere shadow of expectations. No English or Welsh sides made it through the first round of knock-outs, with Saracens crashing out horridly even though they are riding high in the Aviva Premiership, and lay claim to many England players including Owen Farrell.
Harlequins took an even harder blow when they failed to make it past Heineken pools and then shrank into the background against a solid Toulon display in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Exeter Chiefs also fell foul to the French, although putting up a far better fight against the formidable Stade Français. So what is going on? Why does European rugby cause such havoc to the usual state of play?
My belief is it's all about confidence with a certain style of game. The ERC matches all entail huge physical collisions, the set pieces dominate, and there is a strong emphasis on grinding down the opposition’s self-assurance. In the English and Welsh domestics there is a focus on quick hands, good kicking and a faster pace. Certainly this is no bad thing and shows a huge amount of talent, but, when the other European teams arrive during this special set of games, suddenly the hits roll in and the penalties that once counted for little, play a big part in racking up points. Certain teams run scared, unable to compete in the scrum or lineout, feeling bruised from the huge tackles and rucks. Edinburgh’s Captain Greig Laidlaw described the Toulouse match as “an exhausting and extremely physical game” and it is clear that the Scottish side faced this challenge head on. Their ability to battle through undeterred has proved them worthy of a place in the next stage of the tournament, but there was no guarantee of their continuity to the finals against Ulster, the other surprise team who fought to beat Munster to the Semis. Whilst weaker parties went down in flames, the intrepid Edinburgh stood firm against the battering to emerge victorious against the four times champions, Toulouse. The Scots did not have the support of a home crowd in the semis, but did have the chance to write more into the history books if they had managed to beat their Irish opponents.
Although the Italian sides saw little in terms of wins throughout the tournaments, it must be said that this is not due to a fear of the physical. Their scrums and rucks are generally good and their defence often holds its own, but they lacked the flare that comes from more experienced sides. The bone-crushing blows still came thick and fast from the Italian quarter, and they may well begin to cause problems as their teams grow in confidence. Next year may hold better results and even more bombshells.
Combining this more physical play with the fact that the tournaments do not have the massive pressure for players that the internationals see, the end result is more risk-taking. A powerful team with a bit of imagination will always reign supreme. This is where the French sides, and surprisingly Edinburgh, do so well. Their packs are big, rough and generally unforgiving, whilst their backs and kickers have the courage to try out moves that internationally they are discouraged to make. A lot could be learnt for the shaky Scottish squad if they took a leaf out of their European attitude, letting themselves relax and just playing the rugby they want to play is clearly far superior to worrying about keeping games safe. Perhaps if they went out on a limb more often they would break their scoring curse.
In terms of the Heineken Cup Semis, we saw Ulster meet Edinburgh and Clermont face Leinster. Meanwhile in the Amlin Challenge Cup, Toulon took on Stade Français and Biarritz lined up against Brive in a fully French affair. The striking statistics about all these sides are those for rucks, mauls and scrums; these teams do not hold back when it comes to digging deep and finding strength. In the quarter finals, Clermont, Toulon and Brive all overwhelmed their opposition and forced penalties to kick themselves to victory, whilst Leinster dominated open play and reaped their rewards in the form of four tries, showing what having brilliant set pieces can produce. However, their Captain Cian Healy said “we didn’t really put our foot down in the second half”, this was something the Irish side certainly addressed before their next clash. Stade and Biarritz had tougher passages to take; they had to defeat two English teams who do not shy away from rougher play, London Wasps and Exeter Chiefs, and were fairly fortunate to come out on top. Another turn of the tables, seeing as Wasps are currently floundering in the Aviva Premiership but beat off the competition for a quarter final spot in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
The Semis were a blur of passion. Ulster swooped on Edinburgh and took control; the Scots struggled to respond and reverted to unimaginative play. Their try-scoring incapability dogged their performance, unable to squeeze through the tight Ulster defence until the dying minutes. Meanwhile, Ulster produced some thrilling attacks, and with consistent kicking, grappled their way into the Final. Their Irish compatriots, Leinster, also battled through. Despite Clermont being entirely on the front foot throughout the first half, Rob Kearney boosted them with a superb start to the second.
Ireland may have been holding court in the Heineken, but France really pulled out the stops in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Toulon had fans on the edge of their seats as a trademark Jonny Wilkinson drop goal in the last minute managed to pull them to victory. Less than 24 hours later, Biarritz had no problem dispatching Brive, permitting their opponents not a single point for their troubles.
The semi finals are where the ERC became truly interesting before the ultimate teams in each competition battle their way through the finals to the prestigious titles; brute force no longer wins matches, it is all about inspiration at the final stages. The weak have been weeded out, the ill-disciplined and unimaginative have been discarded, only those who truly embody the European spirit survive. Toulon are slowly learning that relying on kicking is a risky business, even with an infamous fly-half on your side, whilst Biarritz and Ulster have shown that crushing a team’s spirit in the opening minutes with big hits and scrums is the key to an easy win. France and Ireland are two countries that really understand the ERC.
But is this all a little unfair? Am I being too harsh on the English, after all, they have to work exceptionally hard to gain a place in this tournament? Whilst Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Italian teams barely have a scuffle for a place in the Heineken Cup, English sides, along with their French opponents, have to wage a full scale war in the domestic leagues to earn their place. This leaves the pressure on in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 Championship with the final throws being played out amongst the knock-out stages of the European Cups, and not just league pride at stake, but next year’s fixtures are in the balance. Hang on just one minute though, did I not just mention the French? Yes that’s right, they have a similarly savage fight over ERC places, and yet there we were with an all French Amlin Semi-Final set and Clermont flying the banner in the Heineken semi! It seems that even if the English sides are tired from their tougher domestic bouts, they lack that certain je nais se quoi that other teams bring to the ERC and frankly, have paid the price this year.
The difference between these tournaments and any other is staggering; they bring drama, excitement and shock results like no other. This year has been one of the best, and lessons have been learnt by many. For those who have fallen short, the focus has moved to finishing the season strongly and hopefully returning next year. For those who remain, it is time to sure-up that scrum, drill that lineout and practice that cheeky chip ball; the Finals are looming and all-round ambitious rugby is the call of the day!