Self-flagellating Welsh can emerge victorious
After today's action, focus will instantly turn to Six Nations, writes Eddie Butler
Keeping time with the beat of the season, rugby followers are still with the Heineken Cup, in-trays full of the arithmetic of qualification and the puffery of how magnificent the competition has been over the past 18 years.
The details of qualification are intriguing, even down to the consideration of those who have been overshadowed in Pool 4 by the exploits of ASM Clermont Auvergne and must scrap today for a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup. The game between the Llanelli Scarlets and Harlequins may be about scraps but it still promises to be a rousing encounter.
That is the positive spin on the last day of action in the qualifying rounds, an acknowledgment of that publicity from "ERC -- Driving European Club Rugby Competition".
It still begs a question: driving it into what? If the tournament is so good, how does it find itself on the brink of extinction? Only in the old world could a sporting institution so touted from within and envied by outsiders be so easily dismantled by its own jealousies.
After today, the rhythm of the season changes and all eyes turn -- and briefings and launches refer -- to the Six Nations. In this period of international competition, the peacemakers will, it must be hoped, be able to extract the pipe from the painful place where it seems to have been shoved and salvage a six-nation competition from the ruins of their own making.
The mood may well swing. Take Wales, for example. Self-flagellation is the mood of the moment, a not entirely despised state, since self-induced agony seems a requirement on the Welsh road to success. But the performance of the leading administrators has hardly been edifying in the past few months.
Wales are not the cause of the main fissure. England and France sent the tremor through the European game with their withdrawal from anything run by European Rugby Cup. But Wales, cash-strapped and without a team in the last eight of the Heineken Cup, have yapped around the grand debate, cutting deals with Sky for a Celtic competition that may no longer exist, entering Anglo-Welsh leagues that may never happen, signing up for a Rugby Champions Cup that cannot be. Yap, yap go the corgis of the game and sink their teeth into the stump of their own tail.
And yet they enter the Six Nations with every chance of becoming champions for the third season in succession -- not corgis but lions. After today, they go into Camp Gatland and, they hope, come out ready to take on the best.
How can this be? Well, with apologies for singling him out, Wales are a bit like Rhys Priestland. He is an outside half and that on its own means that he is something of a symbol in his land.
He looks a little worried all the time but so did Phil Bennett. Being a worrier in Wales is no obstacle to running a game with absolute authority. But Priestland sometimes plays like a worrier. His prodigious boot becomes a slice machine, his passes and decisions turn the way of a participation agreement -- to dust.
But when he is on song -- as he was in round one of the Heineken Cup when the Scarlets beat Harlequins -- he is imposing of stature and presence.
Nobody can manufacture a score from a quarter-gap and subtle pass quite like Priestland.
Then stop him, presumably, is the mantra of his opponents. Concentrate on the playmaker, however, and a space may open up for one of the best exploiter of a half-yard this season, Scott Williams.
The Scarlets, even without Jonathan Davies, have an instinctive feel for shifts and possibilities in midfield.
Harlequins, too, have players who can sense an attacking opportunity.
Mike Brown began the season possessed, a one-man counter-attacking revolution. But Clermont in round five marked him well and just at the wrong point in the season, when Heineken qualification intensifies the
endeavour and the internationals ahead demand an even greater attention to the details of each point of involvement, Brown seemed to lose his mojo.
If Brown is allowed to run from deep -- and the Scarlets may well invite their guests today to take a more daring approach -- he could yet rediscover the spirit of an angry man flying.
If Priestland is allowed to tease with his passing and punish with his punting, then the worrier could become the tormentor.
There is not a lot at stake in the great club-regional scheme of things -- slipping into the Amlin is not what the coaches, Simon Easterby and Conor O'Shea, had in mind when they entered the doomed Heineken Cup -- but it is not without its intrigue.In west Wales, a crumb of a game points us at the next chapter of the season, the Six Nations.