Tuesday 26 September 2017

Tony Ward: I long for the day clown Chris Ashton injures himself in the idiotic 'Ash splash' act of scoring

Clermont may have to wait another year for elusive European title as champions are difficult code to crack

Chris Ashton of Saracens in his ‘Ash splash’ act of scoring. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Chris Ashton of Saracens in his ‘Ash splash’ act of scoring. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Saracens' Chris Ashton
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

All rational evidence points to one outcome at Murrayfield today. Whereas football doesn't, as a matter of course, translate territory or indeed possession into anything tangible, positional supremacy in rugby tends to see the scoreboard ticking over. In that key respect, no team right now plays the percentages better than Saracens.

I have a confession to make, and much though I hate admitting it, the north London club have grown on me in recent years. It might have been the South African influence but in terms of modus operandi I found Sarries' style an acquired taste at first.

The arrival of Chris Ashton didn't help and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. I loathe his antics and long for the day he either drops the ball or injures himself in the idiotic 'Ash splash' act of scoring.

Here we have a potentially great player with an extra sense for tracking ball and sniffing out tries - but what a clown. One day he is going to look in the mirror, think back and say to himself, 'What was I at?' I have no problem whatsoever with players celebrating tries, much like professional footballers, but what Ashton does is brash in the extreme and every time he makes that ugly dive the rest of the watching world from Invercargill on New Zealand's south island to Krasnoyarsk in northern Siberia dislikes English rugby that little bit more. So please, irrespective of the result, may we spared that today.

The irony is that in Mark McCall he has a coach who's at the other extreme in terms of personality. Even if you don't know him, McCall's demeanour any time the camera picks him up mid-match defines that personality adequately.

Whatever is the polar opposite of mé féiner the former Ulster and Ireland centre is just that. His coaching philosophy is based on what players can do and not what they can't. He accentuates the positives and is in every way my type of coach and clearly Saracens' too.

Since he took over from Brendan Venter in 2011 (having joined the club the previous year) and subsequently becoming director of rugby in 2013, the Saracens success story has been incredible. From winning ugly they have developed into the most complete unit in the northern hemisphere at this point in time.

They can play it every which way, thereby making it an extremely difficult code for any would be opposition to crack via analysis. On a dirty wet day in Lyon last year, they absolutely demolished Racing in the final yet never got anywhere near the credit they deserved given the context.

The Sarries' main man has long cited Willie Anderson as the coach with whom he had most affinity as a player and it is that desire to bring the best out of people (inherited from Big Willie) that has taken him and by extension Saracens to where they are today.

Talk to anybody associated with the club in a playing capacity and they will tell you of the extraordinary bond that exists through good times and bad. You cannot put a price on that positivity.

All of which is a long way of saying that take the Ashton disrespect (let's call it for what it is) out of the equation and in every other way Saracens set the standard for others now to follow.

Perform as they did in the Aviva in the semi-final and, irrespective of what Clermont deliver, there will be but one outcome. When firing on all cylinders they are the real deal and not even the enforced absence of Sean Maitland will put a dent in that. But do I want them to win and, more to the point, does it mean today's Edinburgh outcome is a given? No on both counts.

If ever we lose the romantic in us and that belief in the underdog, that anything and everything is possible, we may as well give up on sport. Where would we be without the likes of Connacht Rugby or Leicester City FC? It would be a mighty dull world. So for Munster in the late nineties and early noughties read ASM Clermont Auvergne today.

Always the bridesmaid but never the bride appeared to be the story of Clermont Rugby. Nine French Cup final (now Top 14) defeats up until 2010 when they beat Perpignan. They are there or thereabouts every year and the same too in Europe. Yes, they have lifted the second-tier Challenge Cup but to take the EPCR trophy after two final defeats would be the ultimate prize.

And just like Munster they too are on a crusade with a similar nucleus of passionate support. The fervour and colour (that wonderful combination of blue and yellow) they bring to every European occasion is special. And so too is their rugby. They are not Toulon and amen for that.

The ever-pragmatic McCall is not playing diplomatic games or launching any charm offensive when highlighting the fact that "there is something different about them when compared to other French teams. They have a real core to them, the spirit is visible".

McCall knows that in rugby terms they have everything. A big and powerful pack, strong set-piece, tactically astute halves - both matchwinners - and some real attacking talent in the back line.

The big question mark is over durability and if we're honest fitness to stay the course given the level of intensity guaranteed from the champions in shirts one to 23.

Leinster were slow out of the blocks and guilty of uncharacteristic errors in the opening quarter for which they paid the ultimate price. Sarries have too in Owen Farrell a special type of player, one not fully appreciated for what he does. But he too is human and can be got at.

French rugby has been butchered in recent times but in Clermont I see hope. They are nowhere near Saracens' level of ability or fitness (mental/physical) at this point in time but they are closest of all despite Leinster running them so close. They have too that 16th man and that romantic ethic that makes every cause and every match worth fighting.

I would dearly love to see them succeed today for the sake of European and French rugby. They can mix it when needs must but in general terms they represent a breath of fresh Gallic air.

But, as Saracens showed at the Aviva, they were ready to take on all 16... and did. The same rationale applies today. If both sides are at their best then the cup is on its way back to Hendon.

Irish Independent

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