Sport Rugby

Thursday 21 September 2017

Allies to put similarities aside in leadership fight

Something has got to give when Pool 3's heavyweights clash, writes Eddie Butler

Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens
Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens

Eddie Butler

Drowning gracefully, the Heineken Cup today pitches Toulouse against Saracens. It is an Anglo-French clash of allies. Friends must turn through 90 degrees, from shoulder to shoulder, united as clubs against the global penchant for a centrally contracted rugby elite, to go toe to toe in a contest that may well define the rest of this final season of pan-European competition.

They are strange bedfellows. Toulouse are rich in tradition, the most successful club in domestic French and modern European rugby history. They have been champions of France 19 times, and of the Heineken Cup four times.

Their city, hi-tech industrially and rugby-loving eternally, is the very soul of the continental game.

Saracens are new arrivals, the north London privateers that have been propelled by their benefactor, Nigel Wray, from the engagingly ramshackle to Wembley-filling pre-eminence now. They have an approach that combines South African cussedness with a free-scoring exuberance.

What the two clubs share is a suspicion of the demands of international rugby. To imagine that the treaty hammered out in England -- the deal that compensates the clubs for allowing Stuart Lancaster greater access to England players than Philippe Saint-André enjoys with France -- settled the issue once and for all might be as fanciful as imagining that David Moffett will be returning to Wales with doves of peace flapping in his every pocket. Wonderful as it will be to see the architect of regional rugby in Wales back in the asylum, nothing in rugby is so easily resolved.

Now that the English clubs have their BT deal and the French Top 14 have an even more lucrative television contract on the table, old fissures have re-emerged. When the Toulouse coach Guy Noves questioned the worth of developing players, only for them to be taken away to play in some Parisian goldfish bowl a million miles distant from the passions of the true rugby devotees of the south-west of France, he might have been taking the words out of the mouth of the Saracens benefactor and other lovers of the club game in England. Toulouse and Saracens, these allies with their shared perceptions, must now put their similarities aside and vie for the leadership of Pool 3.

For the French club it has been a vaguely unsettling season. They have found it rather a bore -- the business of having to undrape themselves from the chaise longue and step beyond the portals of their aristocratic home. Just as it seemed, however, that they were approaching the ultimate in the crushingly dull -- a crisis -- they stirred and sank their fangs into the largest villager they could find, the one armed with a cudgel at the chateau door. Clermont were beaten last Sunday. Now for the Saracens.

The nature of their duel is brought into even sharper focus by the presence in Pool 3 of Zebre and Connacht, who represent everything about the Heineken Cup that so vexes the English and French clubs. How can it be that this Cinderella Irish province and this fabricated Italian franchise can walk into supposedly the most envied sub-international competition in the world?

And all the indignation of the top two clubs in Pool 3 -- and perhaps the entire European rugby gene pool -- would have been entirely righteous, and the folly of holding open the door to the rabidly excitable Rabo teams would have been exposed had it not been for one single result. It may have come in a sleepy French giant's mid-longueur, but it was the best two fingers ever waved: Toulouse 14 Connacht 16. And it said: "You mind yer own feckin' rugby, and we'll mind ours."

On which note, may we return to Wales. It was reported by the Welsh Rugby Union in their letter to their

300 constituent clubs that the latest bout of internecine fighting threatened not only the professional game in Wales, but the future of the Six Nations itself. It was a serious epistle from chief executive Roger Lewis.

And it worked. Many grassroot clubs pay players who are not interested in -- or good enough for -- a full-time career, but who are at the same time not averse to earning a little something for an afternoon's shift. When asked if the regions should receive more money, the clubs expressed indignation of their own. "More money for the pros? Would that mean less for us? How would we pay our amateurs then?"

But as for the Six Nations facing ruin, how can this be? Against a backdrop of absolute daftness, Wales have enjoyed three Grand Slams and four titles in less than a decade. Wales, it has always gone without saying, come at rugby enigmatically. The sooner Moffett returns the sooner chaos will reign and the sooner Sam Warburton will be holding up the trophy again.

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