Irish provinces fall to Gallic Juggernaut as Wasps are given the Blues

Well the French are having one hell of a year aren’t they? Not only are they merely Six Nations Champions AND Grand Slammers, but a French team is now guaranteed to win Europe’s most prestigious club competition – the Heineken Cup. Toulouse and Biarritz were simply too good for their Irish counterparts this weekend. As a reflection of this year’s Six Nations tournament, these two French sides have largely cantered to the May 22nd final in Paris. Only two of the Irish provinces came close to stopping them. English and Welsh sides were nowhere to be seen. In fact, the last remaining representatives from these two nations were resigned to compete in Europe’s second tier competition – the Amlin Challenge Cup. Though the Cardiff Blues overcame London Wasps at Adam’s Park, it could yet be a French clean sweep in Europe as the Blues now face a star-studded Toulon side (including a rejuvenated Jonny Wilkinson) on May 23rd.

The first game of the weekend saw Toulouse take on Leinster. In wet conditions, the opening stages were distinctly edgy. The only points in the first half came from the boot. David Skrela – seemingly back to his best (in this game anyway) – opened the scoring on five minutes with a penalty-goal and knocked over two further attempts to give his side a 9-6 lead at half-time. Leinster did enjoy periods of possession but were undermined by a dominant Toulouse pack. The trend was set when Leinster were shunted off their own ball deep inside the Toulouse twenty-two. Byron Kelleher hoofed the loose ball into touch and the pressure was relieved. Such weakness at scrum-time drained the Irish side. Ciaran Healy was hauled off after just thirty-one minutes. CJ van der Linde, his replacement, fared little better. Simply being a tanked-up South African was not sufficient in the face of such technically-expert scrummaging – something French sides have come to epitomise. Leinster’s own poor handling (not particularly surprising given the greasy ball) did not help either. Eoin Reddan was ever so close to touching down in the corner but, double-teamed by Kelleher and Vincent Clerc, the ball slipped from his grasp and his side’s best chance in the opening half was spurned.

However, the tide seemed to be turning at the beginning of the second half. Rob Kearney booted over a monster kick from halfway while Skrela missed his subsequent attempt. Yet this optimism did not last long. Toulouse turned on the style in an electric four minutes which effectively put the game to bed. Having threatened on a number of occasions to break the Leinster line, Yannick Jauzion finally dived over for his team’s first try. He displayed supreme upper-body strength. Squeezing between Leo Cullen (a second-row) and Shaun Berne is no mean feat. But this is no ordinary man. Jauzion was again in majestic form. He is enjoying a fantastic season and has firmly reasserted himself as one of the world’s leading centres. It is a testament to his performance that he received the man of the match award ahead of Skrela who scored twenty-one of his side’s twenty-six points. The fly-half scored a try himself when he jinked inside the visitor’s defence, simultaneously securing his side’s progression to their sixth Heineken Cup Final. At 23-9 down, Jamie Heaslip’s try was merely something of an inconvenience. Skrela simply chipped over another three points to end all hope for Leinster. Few would bet against Toulouse – a team capable of ‘resting’ the likes of Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Maxime Menard and Louis Picamoles – winning their fourth Heineken Cup trophy in a few weeks’ time.

Any doubts about the quality of the French Top 14 will certainly have been put to bed after this weekend. Biarritz, who are not even in the top six positions in the French league, overcame those European stalwarts – Munster – to book their place in Paris. Dimitri Yachvili, a man who has often tormented England, ran the show. Not only was his tactical kicking and handling utterly sublime but he slotted all six of his attempts at goal. He scored all of his side’s points and in the process went passed 500 career points in the Heineken Cup. He was aided too by the impeccable, if somewhat striking, Imanol Harinordoquy. Donning a Hannibal Lecter-esque mask, the world’s best number eight terrorised the Munster-men. As well as playing with a broken nose, he was hampered by a rib injury which threatened to end his afternoon prematurely…at least if the medical men had got their way! Instead, they were swatted away like annoying flies time and time again by the Basque man. Seeing their talisman relentlessly charge into the Munster line despite his ailments must have been quite inspiring for the Biarritz side.

Munster were missing their leader too – Paul O’Connell. It was in the line-out and the scrum where he was most missed. Munster’s front row was largely blunted without the rocket up their backsides which O’Connell can provide from the second row. Their Biarritz counterparts took full advantage. Munster simply did not have reliable set-piece possession and subsequently struggled to ever gain a real foothold in the game. In truth, Biarritz did not have to play that well to overcome them. Yachvili’s and Harinordoquy’s efforts were basically enough to push the Irish province out of the Heineken Cup at the semi-final stage for the second season running. Munster never capitalised on the emphasis that the sole try of the game provided them. A turnover from Jean De Villiers (perhaps a rival to Jauzion as one of the world’s best centres) and the subsequent break from Donncha O’Callaghan ultimately led to Keith Earls touching down. With Ronan O’Gara’s conversion to boot, Munster moved temporarily ahead. However, from then on, Munster never really applied themselves and a series of misdemeanours saw Biarritz not only draw level but slowly creep further and further ahead. They ultimately won 18-7. It was not pretty – much like Harinordoquy’s appearance – but the red and white carnival cared little as they marched home from San Sebastian.

The Cardiff Blues travelled to London Wasps in the semi-final of the Amlin Challenge Cup and secured a tight 15-18 victory. Though a fabulous team performance, Xavier Rush must take a huge heap of credit for his sterling performance. He carried the ball a remarkable twenty-four times and was perhaps deserving of one of his opponent’s very own nicknames – ‘Raging Bull’: as often applied to Phil Vickery (who also enjoyed an impressive game). On twenty-eight minutes, Rush took hold of a quick free-kick and barged through Wasps’ scrum-half Joe Simpson. The ball was quickly recycled which ultimately saw Leigh Halfpenny step inside Mark van Gisbergen to score. Rush will be sorely missed next year when he moves on to Ulster. They have one heck of a player on their hands – even at the ripe old age of thirty-two! Wasps were certainly not out of it though. Dave Walder was kicking well, while Ben Blair missed a number of shots at goal for the Blues. However, Simon Shaw’s sin-binning (for repeated infringements) on fifty-six minutes was arguably the turning point. Without his ball-carrying abilities, Wasps lost a degree of go-forward, not to mention one of their few players capable of knocking back Rush. Eventually the pressure told. Gethin Jenkins forced his way over after a number of pick-and-drives. Blair’s conversion made it 12-18. Wasps would not lie down though. Walder reduced the deficit to three points and when the Blues were themselves reduced to fourteen men (Scott Andrews this time the perpetrator), Wasps sensed their chance. Walder had the opportunity, but he could only pull his long penalty attempt wide meaning the Blues ultimately held on for a quite historic win.

Not only were Wasps unbeaten in their last sixteen European matches at home, but the fact that the Blues denied them a place in the final means that for the first time in the history of European club competition there will not be an English club side in the final of at least one of the tournaments. In fact, only in 1997 has an English side failed to win either the Heineken Cup or the Challenge Cup. English sides have won eight of the last nine Challenge Cup finals. Wasps, having already missed out on the Guinness Premiership play-offs, face another trophy-less campaign. The departure of Danny Cipriani, Paul Sackey and George Shervington on top of last year’s ‘evacuees’ – James Haskell, Tom Palmer and Riki Flutey (though the latter has now decided to return) – is worrying. A crowd of just 8,413, a sharp contrast with the bumper 34,951 crowd at the Toulouse v Leinster game, indicates that all is not well at Adam’s Park. The Blues, on the other hand, are finishing at a canter having endured a torrid start to the season. With six wins on the trot in all competitions they now face Toulon with a second piece of silverware in two years at stake (having won the Anglo-Welsh Cup last year). They could yet leap-frog Munster into the final play-off position in the Magners League.

So, Toulouse will take on Biarritz in the third all-French final since the Heineken Cup’s inception in the 1995/6 season. Furthermore, if Toulon, who overcame Connaught 12-19 on Friday night (albeit with a playing budget some £13 million greater than their opponents), can defeat the Cardiff Blues it could yet be a French clean sweep. Iain Balshaw, Magnus Lund and Ayoola Erinle are the closest that any Englishmen will get to winning the Heineken Cup this year. Hardly world-beaters! If these so-called international ‘rejects’ can win European glory, serious questions need to be asked about the credentials of the Guinness Premiership to provide teams capable of stopping the French juggernaut. Ironically, England’s most successful export this season – Jonny Wilkinson – is plying his trade with Toulon in Europe’s second tier competition. He does nonetheless have the chance to win European silverware for the first time in his thirteen-year career. It has been a season to remember for all those concerned across the English Channel. It has been one to forget for everyone else! French rugby has been quite untouchable this year. The effect of a British Lions’ Tour anyone?


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