Friday 24 November 2017

Tony Ward: European finale missing spark of Celtic nations

McCall can guide Saracens to their first title but decider losing appeal without Pro12 involvement

Dan Carter of Racing 92 shares a joke with team-mates during the Captain's Run ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Final against Saracens at Grande Stade de Lyon today (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Dan Carter of Racing 92 shares a joke with team-mates during the Captain's Run ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Final against Saracens at Grande Stade de Lyon today (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Later on today in the Grande Stade de Lyon, Saracens and Racing 92 will bid to become the 11th winner of the once European (Heineken) Cup which is now the European Champions Cup. It will be the second final to be played under the new regime (EPCR) and, true to the revolution that preceded it, it is an Anglo-French affair.

It will be the 21st European final in all and sixth between the old enemies from either side of the Channel. Obviously not having an Irish interest beyond the Pool stages has dampened enthusiasm in this neck of the woods but I think it fair to say that outside of their immediate home environs in London and Paris the biggest match on the European club calendar is scarcely setting hearts pumping in anticipation.

What Irish interest there is will be confined to the wrong side of the whitewash, at least in playing terms. Not for a minute are we downgrading the achievement of Mark McCall as director of rugby at Saracens or indeed Ronan O'Gara as skills coach at Racing in getting their respective clubs to what is still in theory the biggest European club match of all.

Quite the opposite in fact bearing in mind that these two former internationals alongside others of the ilk of Bernard Jackman, Conor O'Shea and Jeremy Davidson have chosen to make the leap to pastures new beyond these shores in search of that all-important coaching apprenticeship.

Don't ask me why but like many I find Saracens an acquired taste and yet in McCall they possess the most humble and fair-minded driver imaginable. What you see in pre- or post-match interviews in terms of measured calm is what you get in reality, so if I did have a preference on today's outcome he would be central to it but we will return to that anon...

On the other side is O'Gara, blessed with a very different temperament entirely to the Ulster man but one growing in tolerance and perseverance with coaching experience. Short of picking up the whistle upon retirement (the ultimate act of courage - take a bow John Lacey), I am in awe (and I guess envy) of former players with that courage and conviction to travel abroad in search of a broader coaching base.

Mention of refereeing and we have George Clancy assisting Nigel Owens from the touchline with Simon McDowell and Murray Whyte acting as TMO and Citing Commissioner respectively.


Maybe mine is an insular take but while the PR blurb suggests today's showdown is the finale to 'the biggest and best club tournament in the world', the fact it is minus a Pro12 presence and an Irish challenge means this still potentially great tournament loses its appeal to a much wider audience.

The EPCR takeover of ERC has led to a much more competitive and better Pro12, the Italian guarantee apart, but shifting the economic goalposts whereby Top 14 and English Premiership clubs now operate with hill, wind and sun advantage in both halves has made for a distorted playing field, With respect to Sarries, Racing, Leicester and Wasps, the semi-final attendances said it all (around 39,000 combined). We won't labour the point other than to say that without an equally strong Pro12 challenge, the Champions Cup will blow itself out.

But for today it's all about a new name on the pot at the end of this coming-of-age final. It will be the sixth meeting in the competition between the clubs with Racing taking the first (in 2011) but Saracens all four since including last year's quarter-final (12-11). It will be Racing's first final but Saracens' second having lost out to Toulon (23-6) at the Millennium Stadium two years ago.

If they can succeed today then not alone would it represent a first Champions Cup win but in the process the Premiership pacemakers would become the first side in the history of the competition to win all nine matches along the way.

In statistical terms, Sarries boast the best attack with O'Gara overseeing the meanest defence so something's got to give. All over the field there are top-quality head-to-heads but of course one screams out over all the rest: Owen Farrell on Daniel Carter. The young usurper versus perhaps the most complete No 10 of all time.

Carter is certainly the most talented and influential out-half of the professional age while Farrell is not yet being acknowledged for the burgeoning talent he is.

To that add Chris Ashton going toe to toe with Juan Imhoff; Luke Charteris and Francois van der Merwe up against the incredibly powerful combination of Maro Itoje and George Kruis. Mix in the Vunipola brothers plus Alex Goode (on this massive stage), Joe Rokocoko, Maxime Machenaud not forgetting Mike Phillips and Chris Masoe too. Put it all together and it makes for some cocktail.

Whether it will be Machenaud or Brad Barritt (another with so much to play for) mounting the Lyon steps we will know later this evening but if losing is a forerunner to winning then Saracens have certainly done their time, having made it through to the last four semi-finals and of course to that losing final in Cardiff in 2014.

They are well capable of suffocating opposition teams into submission but the quality of rugby under Kevin Sorrell, Joe Shaw et al has been a joy to behold.

And while I sincerely hope we are spared the arrogant Ashton idiocy when try-scoring, I do hope we get the opportunity to see the former Northampton and rugby league convert do what he does best when appearing anywhere at any time in the most incredible supporting positions.

There is no substitute for class but class at pace and you've got the real deal. No doubt Eddie Jones is watching closely. A pre-match word on humility in the winger's ear from the former Bangor Grammar schoolboy now director of rugby wouldn't go amiss.


Racing have home comforts or as close to home as doesn't matter given the venue but Saracens under McCall have moved to a new level in terms of winning quality this season. Finals in most codes tend to be ugly affairs but the potential is there for this to be an exception. The smart money despite having to travel is on Saracens and so is mine. Take Saracens to finally reach that Holy Grail.

Closer to home, meanwhile, there is another final taking place and it kicks off at 2 30pm in Thomond Park. Hard to believe I know but there was a time when the cup finals in all four provinces represented the be all and end all to the rugby season outside of the international arena. Generally, the playing of the final marked the cut-off point with the subsequent Old Belvedere Sevens in May marking the official end as such.

Young Munster and Cork Con will be locking horns in the classic inter-city rivalry. Bateman Cup Champions and AIL Ulster Bank League runners-up Con will be chasing a fourth Munster cup title in a row while for Munsters the prize is not only a first outright success since 2010 but a unique Munster Senior and Junior Cup double having defeated the same opposition in the latter final (22-13) two weeks ago.

Munsters have been ultra competitive since former Con and Ireland legend David Corkery took up the coaching reins. It may pale in comparison to Lyon but for a journey back in time Limerick is the place to be.

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