Disappointment that neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh got through to this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals should be tempered by the reflection that no Welsh club and only Saracens from England got as far as the quarter-finals.
As I’ve remarked often in this column, we have to work very hard to hold our ground and not fall further behind our rivals. That both our pro clubs reached the knockout stage of the Cup suggests we are doing just that. Admittedly, Edinburgh should have got further. They had the beating of Munster until they threw the match away, while Glasgow made so many unforced errors in their quarter-final that they made it easy for Saracens.
Duncan Smith wrote in these pages on Thursday that our direct interest in the semi-finals may be focussed only on Sean Maitland for Saracens and Richie Gray for Toulouse. More attention will probably be paid to Gray, if only because he has missed so many Scotland games on account of injury. It has been good to see him returning to something like his powerful storming best in the last couple of weeks. Though he has been about for a long time, having been first capped in 2010, he won’t be 30 until August, just before the World Cup and his best years may still be ahead of him. It’s quite common for locks to continue to improve and shine most brightly in their 30s, two recent examples being Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones. Indeed, the Welsh captain was voted the outstanding player of this year’s Six Nations at the age of 33.
It takes time to learn how to win in European matches. Exeter, the English champions, haven’t yet found out how to do so. In contrast, this year’s semi-finalists have all cup-winning records. Leinster are the current champions, Saracens champions in the two previous seasons. Toulouse and Munster have both won the old Heineken, admittedly some time ago in both cases. Maxime Medard is, I think, the only member of Toulouse’s winning team in 2010 to be in the present match-day squad. Munster last lifted the Cup in 2008.
The home clubs, Saracens and Leinster, will rightly start favourites. Saracens’ away form has been poor but they are a team for the big occasion, packed with experience, powerful up front, and with Owen Farrell to kick goals. One should never underestimate Munster and Keith Earls has been in tremendous try-stealing form, but they looked very ordinary in the quarter-final at Murrayfield and will surely have to raise their game to have any chance of beating Saracens.
Leinster are not only the holders, they are the most efficient club side in Europe, masters of possession-rugby. Their way of playing is hugely frustrating for the opposition and, indeed, their ability to keep possession through 20 or even 30 phases of one-pass rugby is often pretty boring for the neutral spectator, so boring indeed that anyone starting neutral may come to support their opponents.
Of course this percentage-playing style is calculated and, when they do release the ball and spin it wide or kick intelligently, they score some lovely tries. They will have Johnny Sexton back tomorrow – his first match for a month – and this will be interesting because he was far from his best in the Six Nations.
If one knows most of the time just what Leinster are likely to do, this Toulouse side is unpredictable. It has daring, indeed brilliant, young backs: Thomas Ramos, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, who won’t be 20 until May Day, and the South African wing Cheslin Kolbe, so fast and slippery that he would have had Bill McLaren comparing him to “a baggie in a Border burn”.
They have all played with such audacity – wonderful to watch in their last two matches against Racing 92 and Clermont-Auvergne – that the much-used expression “French flair” has no longer seemed like a nostalgic memory of departed years.
Dupont is a splendid scum-half but seems equally happy at 10. This, of course, is quite common in France – one thinks, for instance, of Freddie Michalak and Jean-Paul Elissalde. It’s rare on this side of the Channel, though of course Greig Laidlaw has played well at stand-off as well as at the base of the scrum.
A dozen years or so ago, I remember suggesting that since we had two Lions-class scrum-halves – Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter – it was a pity to have one of them spending most of the Six Nations on the bench and that we should consider pairing them at half-back, encouraging them also to exchange roles. It didn’t happen, but might well have done so if they had been French. Likewise, I suppose that a French coach at Glasgow might well fancy playing Ali Price at 10 on occasion with George Horne at 9.
Be that as it may, it would be good to see Toulouse winning in Dublin tomorrow. Assuming they play with the sense of adventure that has characterised them this season, a Toulouse victory would strike a blow, as it were, for unstructured rugby, playing off the cuff, as against the pre-planned possession game of which Leinster are undeniably masters.