The Heineken European Cup has produced some of the best and most exciting rugby of the season. It has also thrown up a very interesting question about refereeing that had better be sorted out pretty quickly.
At the end of their narrow quarter-final win over Wasps last Sunday, Northampton were desperately defending a 25-22 scoreline when they had a drop-out from the 22. Before he took the kick, Paul Grayson asked referee Clayton Thomas how long there was to go. The ref said something to the effect that he would end the game the next time the ball went dead.
Grayson promptly booted it over the touchline and Thomas blew the final whistle. That can't be fair or right, surely. By kicking the ball straight out, Grayson would normally have incurred a Wasps scrum underneath the posts, so it is unthinkable that he would have risked such a dangerous outcome had he not been certain he was ending the game.
Should a player be able to end a game by committing a deliberate infringement? I can't believe such an action can be regarded as lawful. Had Grayson taken a normal drop-out it is probable that Wasps would have gained possession, the game could have lasted another two or three minutes and Wasps might have won.
This is not the first time this has happened, but I feel strongly that it should be the last. In the final minutes of a close and vital game, the referee should give only a vague indication of how much time remains. He certainly shouldn't invite a player to do his job for him, and break the rules while he's at it.
The incident would not have made defeat any easier for Wasps to take. It was more a case of them losing than Northampton winning. They must be still kicking themselves for not translating their superiority into victory.
But that's cup rugby, and no one can dispute that the competition has produced a lot of quality and still promises lots more to come. My only disappointment has been that the pool games didn't all create a special atmosphere. The lack of shape and order in club rugby in recent years may have taken the edge off the expectations, but many games lacked intensity and failed to attract and enthuse the crowds.
Some clubs were as enthusiastic as ever, and it is no surprise that the four semifinalists each finished top of their group. Others found it much harder to raise their cup fervour in the early stages, and by the time they did so it was too late. I suspect it will be different in future because the Heineken Cup has proved yet again that it is undoubtedly the top tournament of the club scene and should be every team's priority.
No need to convince Toul-ouse of its importance. They started the competition at Bath and played like it was the final. It is probably still the best game I've seen so far, although the Saracens-Munster ties were also very good.
There is something about Toulouse's approach that every club should try to copy. They don't have to be persuaded to get cup fever - it never leaves them. As talented as they are, their game is ruthlessly tuned to getting points on the board on every possible occasion. Munster are a similar breed. They came into the cup at full pelt and although they face a fierce test against Toulouse at Bordeaux in the semis, I would not write them off. They play an exciting, high-tempo game.
The way Llanelli mangled Cardiff at Stradey ought not to be overlooked, either. A home draw would have taken their semi-final opponents, Northampton, to the Millennium Stadium. I don't think the Saints would have survived that and I am not sure they'll survive at Reading either.
Not only am I intrigued about which two teams will reach the final, I'm also fascinated to know where it is going to be played.
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