Monday 27 January 2020

Neil Francis: 'A Munster victory in France would KO Saracens - which is what rugby needs, but not what it will get'

Munster's Jean Kleyn in European Champions Cup Group D action against Saracens at Allianz Park, London last month. Photo: Reuters/Paul Childs
Munster's Jean Kleyn in European Champions Cup Group D action against Saracens at Allianz Park, London last month. Photo: Reuters/Paul Childs
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There it is again, that furtive restlessness. It seems that the format of the Heineken Cup – sorry, the Heineken Champions Cup – is about to change again.

Not because it is not working, but because vested interests want to ensure that they can devote more time to their own domestic leagues.

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The Heineken Cup is working perfectly and it seems, as things look going into round five of the pool stages, there will be the same mix in the quarter-finals. Why change anything?

Back in 2014, the English, nominally supported by the French, hijacked the competition. We all know now that the promised additional sponsors and additional revenue have not materialised and the two television companies involved have kept shtum on where they see the competition going.

Are BT Sport happy? Because if they do not back it, that is the end of that.

In the lead up to the 2014 hijacking, the man making all the noise was Nigel Wray. He screamed louder than Fay Wray did in the 1933 version of King Kong. There is a touch of Brexit about how it all happened and where it all went.

I have a funny feeling that, despite all his great ideas and blatant lies, Boris Johnson really hasn’t got a clue where he is going with all of this. Faustian ideas, but their implementation is a very different matter.

And so to Nigel Wray. After all his great ideas and plans, we find out the calibre of the person agitating for this change. A cheat. A man with no notion of how to play fair.

A month or two before Christmas, I wrote about how Saracens were going to deal with the predicament they find themselves in. They were still operating somewhere in the region of £2-3million over the salary cap – that situation simply could not remain the same.

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Nigel Wray has stepped down as Saracens chairman. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

One of the things that hasn’t been mentioned is that, not only did Wray orchestrate this circumvention of the salary cap, but the players who he organised it for were obviously aware of what was going on.

You would have to assume, because they are a "tight knit family", that the rest of the squad would also have to have known. You would also suspect that the board had an idea of what was going on.

Premiership rugby puts forward the top six clubs in their division for the Heineken Cup. If Saracens were under investigation, surely it should have been pending the conclusion of that investigation, and yet they are still in the Heineken Cup.

What happens after all his bluff and bluster? Nigel Wray simply resigns as chairman – it’s as simple as that. After leading the Heineken Cup into near-destruction, he walks away.

Edward Griffiths now has a mess to deal with. He will have to disband that Saracens squad.

Their squad will need to take anything up to 25 per cent pay cuts. Saracens’ goose is cooked and yet they are still in the Heineken Cup – as defending champions.

If they had any honour left they would put out their Under-20s in their remaining fixtures against Ospreys and Racing.

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Saracens stars Alex Goode (left) and Alex Lozowski celebrate with their 2019 Champions Cup trophy, following their victory over Leinster. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The fact is they are still being allowed to retain their squad and do so until the end of this year.

There is no salary cap in the Heineken Cup, but if you break it in the Premiership there are regulations in place and your candidature can be withdrawn.

However, we are dealing with people who have no honour here. The sad fact is that Saracens could yet end up winning this competition. Standing in their way are a Munster side who are severely at odds with themselves.

Munster have reached the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup for the last two seasons but at no stage did anybody seriously expect them to progress any further.

They are still as brave and feisty as ever, and it seems that they have recruited the right coaching personnel to address some of the perceived shortcomings that have afflicted them since the glory days of the 2000s.

Defensively, JP Ferreira has done a decent job and Munster are still a difficult side to score against. Their coach, Johann van Graan, was awarded a new two-year contract back in April.

Sunday’s match is one where he can really earn his corn. Munster lived on the edge against Saracens when they won 10-3 and were lucky not to fall to another draw at home.

They were gamey in the return fixture back at the Allianz but their on-field leadership let them down at a vital moment and they came away with nothing.

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Johann van Graan

For all the world, you would have backed them for at least a losing bonus point and also a traditional barnstorming finish. It didn’t happen and question marks hang over Munster.

They are much better passers and their use of the ball in the whole of the field has changed. That is good news because they do have talent and ability in their three-quarter line.

You would normally back Munster to do well with winter conditions in December and January, but their two losses to Leinster and Ulster were very underwhelming.

Now they go to play a game of rugby in Paris against a team that does not fear them and knows which buttons to press to overcome them.

They do so in the pristine, clean-room environment of La Défense, where there are no elements, no wind advantage in the first or second half and any team that goes there must be able to play football in a dry, perfect environment.

This pre-supposes the idea that Munster will join in the fun and throw the ball around with abandon, but herein lies their problem, and they have been handicapped by this for the last couple of seasons – their number-one outhalf, Joey Carbery, just can’t seem to stop getting injured.

The same goes for their next best in the position, Tyler Bleyendaal. That issue is for another day.

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Munster fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal sees his kick charged down by Lloyd Ashley of Ospreys during Saturday night’s game at the Liberty Stadium. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

JJ Hanrahan may not play because of a hamstring injury. Either way, at this level in the competition, where Munster simply have to win, he is not the man who can give direction in their hour of need.

You need halves to win this competition and Conor Murray is still a long way off the sort of performance levels that would have, in the past, seen him mask over deficiencies in other parts of the field.

Munster have a decent pack and skilful enough out-field backs, but if you don’t have Stringer and O’Gara, or their equivalents, there then you are going nowhere. No halves – no control.

I suspect Munster will be competitive and give a good account of themselves but will come away empty-handed.

Just when the competition needed Munster to do everybody a favour and win in Paris, and dump Saracens out of the competition, they appear incapable of delivering that.

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