It may be old news, but as it was – and is – such good news for the sport in the northern hemisphere, I have no hesitation in celebrating the tremendous efforts of the two Heineken Cup finalists, Leinster and Northampton, in Cardiff last weekend.
This top-class tournament regularly produces more interesting, thought-provoking rugby than the Six Nations and the climax was nothing short of sensational. All followers of the union game, whether they are fiercely partisan or wholly impartial, have strong views on how it should be played. I cannot believe any of them were left dissatisfied by what they witnessed on this occasion.
There were so many unexpected things to savour in what I can only describe as the rugby equivalent of a bag of liquorice allsorts, and while Leinster eventually came through, they had to reinvent themselves at the midpoint of the contest after a deeply troubling 40 minutes in which Northampton threatened to blow them clean out of the Millennium Stadium, across the water and back to Dublin. Unfortunately for Jim Mallinder and his men, that intensity could not be sustained over the stretch. After another punishing season of Premiership activity, I am quite willing to believe that fatigue played its part, especially as Leinster had been able to rest one or two individuals in the run-up.
Even so, the Dubliners' metamorphosis was remarkable. Technically speaking, their first-half performance resembled that of an indifferent school side – the Under-14 B team sounds about right – yet after the break they were their formidable, overwhelming-on-all-fronts selves. Much has been made of Brian O'Driscoll's influence, but they now have something else working in their favour, off the field as well as on it: the Jonny Sexton factor. The outside-half is fast maturing into a genuine commander – certainly, Northampton could not live with the breadth and variation at the heart of his game – and, given the outstanding performances we have seen from him in recent high-profile matches, Ireland's forthcoming World Cup campaign should be very interesting indeed.
Here's hoping for a similar extravaganza in this afternoon's Premiership final. Yes, the big day has at last arrived after nine long months of tough, exhausting rugby, and I think it right that the teams finishing first and second in the table after the regular season, Leicester and Saracens, should be the ones chasing the silverware. Last year's decider between the same clubs was a real thrills-and-spills affair. If this one is as close, the tension level will be high.
These sides have favoured the physical over the cerebral this season, so another almighty, collision-based contest can be guaranteed. Or can it? Both have the personnel and the capacity to play with a little more width and imagination than we have seen over the past weeks and months, and I would love to see them take the opportunity to do so as and when it arises. I ventured to suggest last week that teams adopting a proactive mentality on the big occasion can reap handsome rewards, and at different times during the European final, both Leinster and Northampton showed this to be true.
With Sexton's performance so fresh in the mind, I can't help thinking that the two No 10s will be the focal points today, the people who mark the difference between success and failure. Of course, much depends on how the players in the shirts numbered one to eight sort things out between themselves, but Toby Flood and Owen Farrell will be the ones charged with making the most of the indifferent possession that is so often the staple diet in these win-or-bust encounters. The individual who does this best will give his team a significant advantage.
An intriguing duel in prospect, then: the man in possession of the England shirt against one of the most promising pretenders (although it is possible to argue convincingly that both are better suited to the inside centre role). Toby has been there and done it for club and country, but just recently he has not performed with any great consistency. The ability to navigate the field – to move a side into the right areas of the pitch at the right moments, particularly when possession is not of the highest, go-forward quality – is the defining criterion of the top-class No 10. If the Saracens back-rowers, not to mention their all-action hooker Schalk Brits, can pressurise both Flood and his partner Ben Youngs, it will be fascinating to see how they respond.
Owen, on the other hand, is a young lad in his first season among the grown-ups, but to judge by the composure he has shown in the white heat of battle, it seems he is blessed with the full set of Farrell sporting genes. It's difficult to imagine Leicester standing back and allowing him the time and opportunity to indulge himself: they are past masters at closing down key players in big games like this one. However, if they do get in his face, he can draw on the fact that he survived a trial of strength and nerve against the destructive French flanker Serge Betsen in the Sarries-Wasps game earlier this season. As I remarked at the time, that single experience was worth an entire multitude of coaching sessions.
As with all games of this magnitude, it is a close one to call. Leicester must wish they had a fit Geordan Murphy among their number, for without him, only Scott Hamilton seems likely to conjure up something exotic. I know it is foolish to bet against the Tigers on these occasions, but I feel Saracens may just be the ones who find a way of producing the special twist that tweaks the game their way.
'Survival Sunday' gives rugby's rulers food for thought
If the drama and excitement of the Heineken Cup final left us tingling, there was more of the same 24 hours later when the Premier League's "Survival Sunday" kicked off. I cannot clearly recall how many times the relegation calculation changed during the course of those 90 minutes – was it eight? was it 14? – but I was hooked on watching the players and managers deal with a pressure-cooker situation in real time.
Commiserations to those who disappeared through the trapdoor; congratulations to those who avoided the drop. No doubt all those rugby administrators responsible (or not so responsible) for the decision-making process surrounding promotion and relegation in the English club game watched the theatricals unfold with keen interest!Reuse content