Thursday 22 February 2018

Nothing to separate europe's twin towers

Shaun Sowerby, the imposing South African back-rower, has just emerged from the showers. Toulouse have beaten Leinster 26-16 at Le Stadium in the Heineken Cup semi-final.

Byron Kelleher tugs disinterestedly at his mud-caked football boots as two sweat-beaded Irish hacks offer congratulations.

Welcome to the Toulouse dressing-room: legends of the game floating upon the tiles, bound just weeks later for a fourth Heineken Cup title, thus confirming their status as the best club side in Europe.

They throw open so many doors where others prefer to meekly hide behind them, it should be little wonder that such easy grace so neatly accompanies the mantle of multiple French and European champions.

We didn't remember much of the chat until Bernard Jackman wrote something during the week that pricked our attention.

"I remember the dressing-room at half-time and the fatigue on every player's face, such was the physicality that we had faced over the first 40 minutes," according to the retired Irish international. "We only lost 26-16 in the end but it felt like a hammering, such was their domination."

And we recalled that Sowerby had pointedly noted the same thing to us in the Toulouse dressing-room after the game. "We knew they were getting more tired as the game went on," he said.

Much of what had transpired previously franked that feeling. Missing Jonathan Sexton had dealt the reigning champions a damaging psychological blow before a ball had been kicked.

And then there was the issue of Leinster's scrum; or rather the neglect of Leinster's scrum, to which Kevin McLaughlin ascribed a certain naiveté when talking on radio this week. Although Sowerby likes to challenge that particular consensus.

"I don't think their scrum was that bad last year," he demurs. Of course, with his men sans Benoit Lecouls in their engine room, this is not a time to be offering hostages to fortune.

"No, I don't agree with that. I mean, you had CJ van der Linde there, one of the most reputed props in the world until that point ... "

Of course, Michael Cheika didn't start the expensively indulged Van Der Linde; instead, Cheika opted against shifting Stan Wright, and poor Cian Healy was exposed at loose-head to a ruthless lesson at the hands of Lecouls, which left him so visibly distraught and humiliated on the Leinster bench.

Leinster had started well in the opening scrums before concertinaing dramatically. There will be no such submission this time around. Fatigue will not be an issue on this day.

"Certainly, they have progressed in that area," points out the 32-year-old Springbok. "Mike Ross has come in and shored things up, Cian has improved and I've been hugely impressed with Richardt Strauss. And what more can you say about Sean O'Brien?"

In a nutshell, Leinster's overall threat up front will be more pronounced than last year, when Sowerby was content to spend much of his time sauntering out on the wing, dealing with skewed kick receipts with nonchalant ease and, like Thierry Dusautoir, generally disdaining any ruck work.

This time, Toulouse are the champions and, as Jamie Heaslip so vociferously outlined this week, the Irish want their trophy back. Sowerby won't relent easily.

"I'd never won one -- so many of my team-mates had experienced it, but not me," he recalls of the subsequent final win against Biarritz.

Sowerby started the Heineken Cup final against Munster three years ago. His memories, naturally, aren't sepia-tinted, his lapse at the base of a scrum ultimately leading to the concession of possession that allowed Denis Leamy to score the try that allowed Munster grab the Cardiff tussle by the neck.

"In addition, I am a foreigner. The Heineken Cup is different and special. It reminds me of the Super 14 matches against big teams in several countries. Sometimes you play in winter, and others in summer.

"It's really a true test. The league is also special, but it lasts eight months and 30 games. The Heineken Cup is more concentrated but more difficult. It's something special."

This year, Toulouse have already negotiated Biarritz, at the quarter-final stage, a dour extra-time win which hinted once more at the unfathomable reaches of this team's mental reserves: "It demonstrated that we have the mental strength to achieve any task."

And in the Top 14, Toulouse have erased one extra obstacle by sweeping towards the top of the regular standings; while last year, Guy Noves declared that a war on two fronts was an impossibility, this season it exists within the realm of the possible.

"For sure, Leinster have the same ambitions as we do, in terms of going for two trophies," says Sowerby.

Benched today, Sowerby's status indicates the depth of back-row talent at the club -- Gregory Lamboley joins the impressive Dusautoir on the bench.

"And don't forget Yannick Nyanga, it is like having a new player back for us," he warns of the sublime back-rower who secured that quarter-final victory against Biarritz.

The majority of Sowerby's professional career has been spent in France -- three years in Stade Francais since leaving his captaincy of the Natal Sharks in 2004, before linking up with Toulouse.

Had Sowerby not received his solitary cap against Samoa in 2002, some of his compatriots say snidely, he would rather have declared for his adopted country under IRB residency rules.

Sowerby's rugged frame shakes with amusement at the reputed labels being attached to his name in exile.

"I suppose I'm almost seven years here," he muses. "And I've really enjoyed every minute of it, it's been great. I wouldn't say I've become as French as the French themselves, though."

He has extended his contract, so there still remains time. As we speak, Sowerby is between Champions League semi-finals, wallowing in the conviction of his twin heroes, Paul Scholes and Xabi Alonso.

"You can see Barcelona and Manchester United have been there before, they know how to react, they have the pedigree," he says. Like Toulouse, you suggest. "For sure, but Leinster are becoming a team like that too. That is why we have respect for them."

Irish Independent

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