Tuesday 21 November 2017

Tony Ward: If an Irish side won in the style of Saracens we'd all be delighted

Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall poses with the Champions Cup after his side's final victory over Racing 92 Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall poses with the Champions Cup after his side's final victory over Racing 92 Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It was a thoroughly forgettable Champions Cup final but that won't worry Saracens. On Saturday at the Grand Stade de Lyon, they came of age when adding their name to the ten previous winners of the most sought-after trophy outside of the international arena in northern hemisphere rugby. Ten successful penalties and three line-breaks (two to Racing) over the course of 80 minutes says it all about the quality of the game.

For those committed to either cause no doubt it was absorbing in the extreme but for the casual observer it was mind-numbing stuff. Finals in general tend to be nervous, tetchy affairs but let's be honest here, were it one of our provinces going to France and turning over the French in the biggest game in the professional club calendar on their own patch the statues in celebration would already be on order. So perhaps a little more rational analysis of Sarries' achievement wouldn't go amiss.

Think back for example to Ulster's great day at the old Lansdowne in 1999. The spirit of '99, as it is rightly celebrated in the environs of Ravenhill and beyond, marks a match won in similar circumstances (21-6) albeit one successful kick at goal less. I deem myself privileged to have been present on a day when Ulster folk invaded Dublin like never before and the atmosphere was electric. Barbarian rugby it was not but try telling that to any of the 50,000 present and so many more who were watching in from afar. Multitude When it comes to success beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Winning can mask a multitude with the end more than justifying the means. And just for the record, since that goal-kicking masterclass from Simon Mason (not forgetting David Humphreys' drop goal) in '99 there has been but one tryless final since (prior to Saturday). That was in 2005 when Toulouse beat Stade Francais 18-12 after extra-time (now that was tedious!) for the third of their four successes to date.

In the last five finals there have been 21 tries scored including 12 in Leinster's back-to-back wins at Cardiff and Twickenham in 2011 and 2012. I certainly have no drum to beat on behalf of Saracens but in Lyon the best team over the course of this year's Champions Cup got their just reward and in the process created history when becoming the first to do so on the back of nine straight wins.

That takes some doing specifically winning on the road at the Kingspan, Toulouse and Oyonnax, never mind the French-based final itself.

Over the last few years, embracing four European semi-finals and two finals, they have developed a winning style of rugby that's so much easier on the eye. Yes, they still batter down doors but equally they meticulously pick locks when that is required. I said in Saturday's preview that for one person in particular I really hoped they would come good and that of course is director of rugby Mark McCall.

Note his most immediate post-match comment (and in the process trying to stay as far away from TV cameras as possible): "We truly believe that if we are humble and hungry enough, which I know we are, there's more good days ahead of us."

The former Ulster and Ireland centre simply oozes humility. As long as he can keep some sort of lid on the abominable 'Ash Splash', then for McCall, Nigel Wray and this clearly tight-knit Saracens group the future is theirs. Against Racing, they did what they had to do when adapting to the wet conditions with Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode in particular playing the percentages by kicking for space in the right areas of the field.

Last week in the Sportsground we watched Connacht deviate from their normal gung-ho approach by way of a shift in emphasis to defence on the day.

The bottom line saw them achieve a home Pro12 semi-final and if there was a dissenting voice to their modus operandi given the conditions I didn't hear it.

The great teams can play it any which way and while the Lyon final will fade fast, for Sarries supporters it will last forever. So while I do understand the post-match gloom that we hadn't been treated to an extravaganza, equally I have no doubt that were it Connacht, Leinster, Munster or Ulster celebrating on an open-top bus on Sunday, it would have been on the back of 'the greatest win ever'.

So let's keep our national disease, better known as begrudgery, in its place and congratulate 'Small' McCall and his reigning European champions on the magnitude of their achievement. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Prior to kick-off in Lyon on Saturday, Cork Con completed an extraordinary end to an extraordinary season - even by the Leesiders' exalted standards. In addition to the Bateman Cup, they have now added the Munster Senior Cup for the fourth year running as well as losing out to Clontarf in the All-Ireland League final in addition to finishing runners-up to Munsters in the provincial Junior Cup final and of course taking the Fraser McMullen U-20 cup back to Temple Hill as well.

Former Con stalwart and current Young Munster coach David Corkery was gracious in his post-match acknowledgement that the better team won in Thomond.

He was less considerate in his comments aimed at the IRFU for withdrawing two of his younger players - Dan Goggin and Ger Lyons - apparently for a Sevens training camp.

As I understand it, the Olympic Qualifying Tournament is to be held in Fontvielle, Monaco on June 19. That is a full month away. Let me say that as one who supports the long overdue propagation of Sevens, I echo Corkery's every sentiment. It is more than a f*****g disgrace.

Irish Independent

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