The Heineken Cup produces season after season of drama and entertainment. The six pool system throws up fascinating permutations and as well as a number of cross border rivalries.
This season has seen something of a changing of the guard. Traditional challengers Leicester and Biarritz failed to make it out of the pool stages. Toulouse and Munster were both beaten in the quarters. Neither team made it to the semis in 2007 but other than that, one or other of them has been in the semis every year since 2000. Leinster reached their fourth semi in a row and their experience will stand them in good stead.
While Clermont have been a force to be reckoned with for a number of seasons, success hasn’t come instantly to Les Jaunards. They captured the holy grail of their first Bouclier de Brennus in 2010 after losing the previous 3 finals and getting the monkey (USAP?) off their back. They’ve been notoriously difficult to beat at home in recent Heineken Cups. Their road form has let them down before this year but they gave Saracens no chance at the weekend.
Ulster stormed Thomond having come through a tough group. €100 has been matched on Betfair at 90-1 so someone out there got some value when things looked dark for the White Knights. There were a number of Ulstermen with a point to prove against Munster and Declan Kidney is picking from a position of strength for the tour to NZ, despite another disappointing Six Nations.
Finally, the Michael Bradley coached Edinburgh shocked Toulouse and, did it in front of a decent crowd. Scottish club rugby has struggled to gain traction with the Scottish public in the professional era but nothing succeeds like success and the result gives Edinburgh something to build on. Despite winning their first two games and topping their pool, over €100 has been matched at odds of 100-1 or greater on Edinburgh. While Ulster will be favourites, Edinburgh won’t fear their Rabo rivals.
There are no Welsh or English teams in the semis of the competition which, allied to Ireland’s disappointing international form, has spawned a school of thought that success in the Heineken Cup has little to do with international success and may be inversely correlated. This is dubious. Leicester won the tournament in 2001 and 2002 and provided three starters and two subs to the England team that won the 2003 RWC. Wasps then won the trophy in 2004 so Heineken Cup success didn’t do England’s national team any harm. France’s team that reached the 2011 RWC final was backboned by players from Toulouse, Biarritz and Clermont.
The argument from the Premiership is that the Rabo Pro12 teams don’t have to deal with relegation and are virtually ensured qualification to the Heineken so can rotate their squads at will in order to concentrate on the Heineken Cup. There’s some truth to that but it’s a bit counterintuitive that a supposedly weaker league is able to produce so many competitive teams. Leinster and Ulster sit first and fifth at the moment with six teams still in live contention for the playoffs and three points between second and fifth. It doesn’t follow that they have sacrificed their domestic league for European success. It’s also strange that the Welsh clubs, with so many talented players, have only one team in a play-off spot at the moment, and no team in the semis of the Heineken. The cautionary tale of Wasps serves as an example that the best interests of the rugby club must be served by those responsible for operating it. Wasps are one of the select few who have won more than one Heineken Cup. Never a big club, they punched above their weight when Warren Gatland was in charge and Lawrence Dallaglio was leading them on the pitch.
Wasps’ story is one for another day. However, Gatland’s impact suggests strongly to the Mole that the best coached teams are the ones that prosper. How well a club is operated is a good indicator of its chances of success in the long run. The Heineken Cup is a good thing and the ability to prosper in that increases the chances of developing players capable of playing at the highest level. Whether they’re selected or trained in a manner that gets the best from their ability is another argument. Furthermore, success in a Heineken Cup seems to increase the likelihood of more success as long as the majority of the team stays intact. Replacing those team members is a job for the coach that selects them but he can only work with what is provided by his academy or recruitment structures.
Rebuilding for some, bare survival for others but for four, the prospect of glory remains!