THE Heineken Cup final is usually the high spot of the European club season, but somehow there is less sparkle about it this year.
For us in Scotland, Glasgow’s attempt to win in Dublin next weekend, and collect the RaboDirect Pro12 trophy, is more important, but even setting this aside, the Heineken final between Saracens and Toulon doesn’t quite grip the imagination. This is unfair, because both are fine teams, and Saracens in particular have been playing some very exciting rugby in the last few weeks. As for Toulon, they are more like a Champions League football club: based in one country, but with most of their players coming from elsewhere. When they won last year’s final they had only a handful of Frenchmen in their squad.
The Irish provinces have contributed so much to the romance of the Heineken that a final without an Irish club seems a bit like a ham sandwich without mustard. There is no underdog this afternoon. We have two of Europe’s biggest and richest battalions hammering away at each other. Their own supporters love them, but not many others; admire yes, that’s easy; love, no.
Nevertheless there is one thing which does lend a touch of romance to the encounter. It is Jonny Wilkinson’s last match, and his career stretching back 15 years has been so remarkable... a story of commitment, dedication and determination to overcome a truly horrible succession of injuries that you can only wonder at it. He really is one of those who have met with triumph and disaster and treated “these two impostors just the same”. He represents so much of what is best about rugby, that there will be a great many damp eyes if he lifts the trophy again.
Meanwhile, we have the two squads for Scotland’s summer tour, and the selection of the squad for the Commonwealth Games, to chew over. Of the 43 players selected for the tour, with its four international matches in four weeks, only nine will move on from the North American games to those in Argentina and South Africa. Every team will be experimental. There will not be much in the way of continuity. To some extent this has been unavoidable. The South African match falls outwith the period when clubs are obliged to release players. Consequently, though 17 of the 43 are “exiles”, attached to English or French clubs, only three of them – Geoff Cross (London Irish), Moray Low (Exeter Chiefs) and Ruaridh Jackson (London Wasps) are in the squad for the Argentina and South Africa games. None has yet played for his new club, but, one supposes that, unless the SRU has received special dispensation, they will be available only for the match against Argentina.
Clearly we will not field the “best” Scotland XV in any of the four internationals. For some, this rather devalues a Scotland cap, but this is how it is nowadays. The tour is by way of being a chance for new Scotland coach Vern Cotter to assess the quality available to him. The squads have clearly been selected with next year’s World Cup in mind. This may account for the omission of Alistair Kellock, Euan Murray and Nick De Luca – though, given the longevity of props, it may be too soon to rule Murray out.
There is a lot of experience in the two squads, but nobody who, by modern standards, is to be counted a veteran. Sean Lamont (33) is nearest to being in that category, followed by Scott Lawson (32). There are four 31-year-olds: Kelly Brown, Chris Cusiter, Geoff Cross and Alasdair Strokosch. Cusiter at least, having missed so much rugby over the years, has been scampering about with the zeal and zest of a springer spaniel, while Brown has been in tremendous form for Saracens. Most are in their middle 20s and the youngest are Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, both only 21.
Given that we have only two professional teams here, Edinburgh’s representation – seven of the 43 – is lamentable, and would still be poor even if injury hadn’t ruled out Matt Scott (our first-choice 12) and Jack Cuthbert. This is a reflection of the club’s miserable form and record, also of Alan Solomons’ preference for packing the team with players who are not qualified for Scotland.
Given the demanding schedule and the inevitable lack of continuity from match to match, we should not expect too much of this tour. Two victories would represent a pass mark, three a pass with merit, four a remarkable triumph. No doubt much will be learned. Whether at the end of the tour we will be closer to settling that long-running argument as to our best fly-half must be doubtful. It looks as if Tom Heathcote, Finn Russell, Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir may each be given the opportunity to start one match. There is one other puzzle. Our Lions prop, Ryan Grant, is not included in either squad, and not named among those who would have been picked but for injury. What does this mean?