Chris Hewett: Llanelli fired up to prove a point in tribal battle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Mitchell, the gimlet-eyed New Zealander who lost his job as All Black coach after committing the unpardonable sin of flying back across the Tasman from Australia without the World Cup in his hand luggage, is a self-proclaimed aficionado of "real rugby" - rugby that glories in its tribalism, its earthiness and its occasional brutality. Which probably explains why he is here in Britain for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, rather than over there in God-knows-wheresville for the latest helping of Super 12 candyfloss. Mitchell knows a proper game when he sees one, and he will be seeing several this weekend.

What is more, he would argue that real rugby tournaments are won by real rugby clubs constructed from the bottom up over a period of decades, as opposed to fly-by-night confections imposed from the top down in the time it takes to open a chequebook. History proves him right. Leaving aside Ulster, who seized a European title in 1999 while the whole of England and the best of Wales were doing something else, the Heineken Cup has only ever been won by club sides deeply rooted in the timeless traditions of the sport.

Leicester, Bath, Northampton, Toulouse, Brive - these were, and remain, teams situated at the very heart of their sporting communities, teams that carry the hopes and dreams of their townsfolk every time they take the field. It is difficult to imagine a buy-'em-in, ship-'em-out side like Saracens generating the kind of passionate momentum necessary to prevail in this most demanding of tournaments, let alone such politically divisive outfits as the Neath-Swansea Ospreys or the Celtic Warriors. It is why the Dubliners of Leinster cannot fulfil their undoubted potential at this level, and may well explain why the swanky Parisians of Stade Français have never quite made it to the top of the pile.

Of this weekend's quarter-finalists, only Toulouse, the holders, know what it is to lift the trophy. The other fancied teams - Llanelli Scarlets, Munster, Wasps - are not big-city clubs; the first two are provincial sides, the third a team cut off from their London support base and playing in the middle of Buckinghamshire. But the Scarlets embraced regionalism only a few months ago and are effectively the Llanelli of old, while Munster are a club in all but name. And Wasps? According to those who know best, the English champions are the nearest thing to the real deal yet produced by the capital.

Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coach, played much of his best rugby at Wasps, and when the West Countrymen travel up the M4 on Sunday for the last of the four ties, they will do so with every last droplet of Ryan's inside knowledge trickling through their little grey cells.

"The game has moved on so much since I left Wasps, but it is clear they have succeeded in hanging on to the qualities and principles that made them different to every other side in London," the former England No 8 said this week.

"They may play in High Wycombe now, but they are a London team and in rugby terms, London is a very challenging environment. It is no small thing to develop a culture of togetherness there, but they have managed it. They are an extremely close-knit side."

Nigel Melville, who coached Wasps for years before taking over as the director of rugby at Gloucester, is of the same opinion. "There is no revolving door at Wasps; their commitment to stability and continuity has helped them develop that special spirit common to the most successful teams. If you look at Saracens up the road - well, how different could they be?"

Only Edinburgh, an out-of-form side who would have been rated rank outsiders even had they been in the best shape of their lives, appear out of place in this company; Toulouse beat them 33-0 in the pool stage and are well capable of inflicting a similar degree of pain tomorrow, even without injured half-backs of the calibre of Frédéric Michalak and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde. The other contenders look as though they belong; indeed, they seem more comfortable at altitude than in the claustrophobic foothills of the pool stage, where each lost at least once.

If pure desire turns out to be the determining factor, three sides - the Scarlets, Munster and Stade Français - have an edge. Munster have been so close, so often to this goal that another failure now could have a profoundly detrimental effect on morale; Stade, their opponents in Limerick tomorrow, have also had their near-misses, and are further driven by the knowledge that defeat at Thomond Park will leave them contemplating second-tier European rugby next term.

And Llanelli? They may be the most emotionally charged of all the quarter-finalists. Until last month, they played with the fervour of a side intent on rewarding their revered coach, Gareth Jenkins, with the ultimate prize before he headed off to nurse the Red Dragonhood through the next stage of their recovery at Test level. Since last month, they have played with the fury of a side deeply offended by the Welsh Rugby Union's decision to overlook Jenkins and give the top job to someone else. When Llanelli play Biarritz tonight, they will summon the furies of hell.

"Llanelli play a dynamic game with a lot of movement, and the home-town atmosphere in Wales will make this a special occasion for them," conceded Dimitri Yachvili, the Biarritz scrum-half who played such a significant role in his country's Grand Slam victory over England in Paris 13 days ago. "But nothing is out of reach. Perpignan showed us the way by winning at Stradey Park at this stage of last season's competition. This match is special for us too, for Biarritz are motivated and ambitious."

And, he might have added, a stronger side than Perpignan circa 2003. Should Llanelli win, they may take the view that this is their year, at long last. As a step towards a meaningful renaissance for Welsh rugby, it would be one taken with the stride of a giant.


Llanelli Scarlets V Biarritz

Those who use the night sky as a form book thought two things would happen this spring: Gareth Jenkins, the Scarlets coach, would succeed Steve Hansen in the national job, and would sign off at Stradey Park with the Heineken Cup victory he has craved since 1996. But Jenkins is not succeeding Hansen, much to the disbelief of the West Wales legions, and the second half of the equation may also be at risk - especially as Biarritz, armed to the back teeth with the likes of Nicolas Brusque and Serge Betsen, are the form team in France, despite their narrow championship defeat in Grenoble last weekend.

Stradey Park, Llanelli; tonight, 7.45pm.

Toulouse V Edinburgh

The first Scottish side to reach this stage, Edinburgh have named a 26-man squad for their trip to the grandest of all European rugby cities and may need to play the whole lot simultaneously to withstand the Jauzions, Ntamacks and Poitrenauds. While Toulouse came through a tough match in Narbonne last weekend - as always, they are perfectly positioned to challenge for the French title - Edinburgh are in pieces, having won only once in eight matches. Their international players were missing for much of that period, but how confident can the Test élite be after a grisly Six Nations experience?

Stade de Toulouse; tomorrow, 3pm.

Munster V Stade Francais

As a general rule, visiting teams do not enjoy the Limerick experience - the French least of all. It is quite bad enough going toe to toe with Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, without 12,000 Munstermen singing endless choruses of "Fields of Athenry" from the Thomond Park terraces. Yet Stade Français are in must-win mood, not least because their domestic campaign has disintegrated to the extent that next season's Heineken Cup qualification depends on them securing this year's title. The classy Parisians are without Agustin Pichot, but not without hope.

Thomond Park, Limerick; tomorrow, 5pm.

Wasps V Gloucester

Full metal jacket time. Nigel Melville and Dean Ryan, the Gloucester coaches, made their names at Wasps, as did the scrum-half, Andy Gomarsall. These people know all there is to know about the most potent side in England and believe they have the game to beat the Premiership champions. Gloucester's notoriously vocal supporters save the worst of their bile for the Londoners and should congregate at the Causeway Stadium in considerable numbers, having disguised themselves as Wasps followers in order to circumvent the ticket allocation.

Causeway Stadium, High Wycombe; Sunday, 3pm.