THERE is so much rugby on TV now that one has to be discriminating, especially with the start of the new European club competition which one still thinks of as the Heineken, just as one is disinclined to call Ravenhill and Lansdowne Road by their new commercial names.
In prospect indeed it still looks very much like the Heineken; quite likely the reduction from 24 to 20 clubs and from six pools to five won’t make much difference.
There certainly won’t be many easy or one-sided matches, and Edinburgh’s relegation to the second-tier competition may be no bad thing for the club. That said, starting out as they did last night against Bordeaux-Begles looked likely to be as tough an assignment as any they had in last season’s Heineken, given their opponents’ rampant form this autumn, on their home patch anyway.
Glasgow host Bath, whose form has also been very good. They are riding high after a few years of struggle, and may well be serious contenders in the cup for the first time in ages. They are one of the four English clubs to have won it, but their victory came so long ago that Andy Nicol was their captain. Glasgow will be happy to start with a home match. Last year they went to Toulon first-up and never quite recovered.
Their winning league run came juddering to a halt in Belfast last weekend. The 29-9 score suggested it was a hammering, but the game was much closer than that, and the issue was in doubt beyond the hour mark. Worryingly, and unusually, Glasgow were pretty well beaten up-front and so their backs rarely received good go-forward ball. They scarcely troubled the Ulster line-out, and Ulster were on top in the set-scrum.
That might be ominous, but we all know – or should know – that the set-scrum is a bit of a lottery. One week a front-row struggles; the next the same three dominate. And outsiders, a category that may uncharitably be held to include most referees, haven’t the faintest idea why. In any case very few teams beat Ulster at Ravenhill.
The best match I saw last weekend was the game between Toulouse and Toulon, Heineken winners for the last two seasons. Toulouse had made a wretched start to the season, and so this was a very important game for them. Quite often Top 14 matches are disappointing, sticky and unenterprising with very little in the way of traditional French flair. it’s not surprising that this is often in short supply; many of the teams fielded aren’t actually very French, Toulon hardly at all. It’s said that any weekend 40 per cent of players in the Top 14 aren’t French.
Toulouse, however, didn’t play only with the determination that finding yourself near the bottom of the league may call for. There was plenty of that, but there was also imagination and panache. They were all over Toulon for the first half and if they scored only one try in that period, this was partly because they forced the champions to give away penalty after penalty. The try itself was a beauty: a gorgeous, high Garryowen under the posts, that was plucked marvellously out of the air by the brilliant young centre, Gael Fickou, who spun round as he descended to fall over the try-line. Admittedly Toulouse had a penalty coming when Luke McAllister elected to kick; nevertheless it showed that kicking in attack is often a better tactic than patiently going through phase after phase in the opposition 22.
That point was nearly made again later by Toulon’s stand-off, the sparkling Australian James O’Connor, whose grubber kick from about 20 metres out would have created a try if a covering tackler hadn’t forced the recipient to put a foot in touch just before he grounded the ball over the try-line.
Fickou is part of the future of French rugby. Some of his team-mates are getting a bit long in the tooth, and may be held to belong to its past. Nevertheless Thierry Dusautoir, outstanding against Toulon, will still surely captain France again this year. Vincent Clerc, who has scored more Top 14 tries and more Heineken tries than anyone else, is now 33, though he still looks a bit like a choirboy who hopes the priest won’t know what mischief he is getting up to.
All the same, after missing most of last season due to injury, he aims to play in next season’s World Cup. I hope he makes it; he’s a standing reproach to those coaches who have no time for wingers who don’t stand 6 ft 3 and weigh in at 16 or 17 stone.
The international career of Imanol Harinordoquy, who joined Toulouse this summer after his old club Biarritz was relegated, may be over. Indeed quite a few people were surprised that Toulouse wanted a player deemed by many to be already over the hill.
His performance against Toulon should silence his critics. He dominated the line-out and the take-and-give pass with which he set Yoan Huget free to canter in for his second try was exquisite. There’s life in the old Basque warhorse yet.