The Changing of the Guard

In the decade from 2001 to 2010, the Heineken Cup was dominated by four teams – Leicester, Munster, Toulouse and Wasps. The quartet between them won 9 of the 10 tournaments and were runners-up a further 5 times (with a nod to Biarritz and Stade, who never actually crossed the line). It was a truism that until you battled past these big guns in a knock-out situation, you had yet to prove yourself. Sale Sharks, Gloucester and Leinster were among those to feel the white rage from Munster after being talked up in advance.

This era is now firmly over. The Big Four contained players of a similar vintage – those who started out at the fag end of the amateur era and were the first generation of professionals – and all four have essentially fallen away at the same time.

Wasps won the tournament as recently as 2007 with an exciting and star-studded lineup and a progressive and driven management team, but when the Worcester Warriors handed them a donut last year, Wasps had none of that 2007 starting lineup in the team, and the coaches were preparing to lead Wales to a second Grand Slam under their tutelage. Wasps are currently struggling to preserve their Premiership status for next season, and are a salutory lesson in how quickly a team can lose its direction.  Look through their current  team sheet, and if you’re familiar with more than five names, let us know and we’ll post you out a Barnesy-endorsed Premiership Anorak award.  Their demise has been the steepest.

Back when English rugby produced players that were feared

The team they beat when they last won the Cup, domestic rivals Leicester, were runners-up three years ago, and gave Leinster a really tough test last year. This season, however, they limped home from the type of pool they used to relish with a whimper, and a 40 point beating in Ravenhill. The Tiger team that night contained just three of the XV from the ’07 final – Marcos Ayerza, Geordan Murphy and Oooooooooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi – and it’s fair to say the latter pair won’t be getting better any time soon. The current Tiger setup has lost its way somewhat, and a bloated squad which is low in quality has failed even to maintain its pre-emptive status in a Premership shorn of its international reputation (even Barnesy is struggling to hype it up these days).

Munster built their Heineken Cup dynasty on a grizzled pack and Rog. Of the forwards that played in the Miracle Match (you know the one – Farrelly’s first game of rugby), 6 played again in the 2009 semi-final. And of those 6, only Donncha played on Sunday (O’Connell was injured in 2003) – a significant change, and one most notable by the difference in their backrow play. Munster were semi-finalists in 2010, but Generation Ligind is now disappearing over the sunset with all their experience and nous – they will do well to match that achievement in the next few years. Paulie captures the frustration within the team that they just can’t do what they used to:

We had the territory to do it, but just one try is disappointing. We need to make better decisions. You just can’t beat yourself. I’m not taking anything away from Ulster, but we just need to be that little bit more clever. It’s what we did in the past.”

Poor Tomas - he just can't catch a break, can he?

In that same 2003 tournament, Toulouse beat Perpignan to win their second title. The spine of the team contained such luminaries as Poitrenaud, Jauzion, Clerc, Bouhilou, Pelous, Poux, Servat – all currently or recently first-choice at Le Stadium. There is a tremendous amount of miles on those clocks, with 5 Heineken Cup finals and 4 Top 14 finals in 2 notoriously attritional compeitions, not to mention 1 RWC final and 2 semi-finals for a lot of those names. The hunger, desire, and will just isn’t there any more, and the fact that most of the names above still start will tell you all you need to know about the next generation, in spite of abundant promise. No doubt the squad is still packed with quality, but they only sparkle in patches. When they lost to Edinburgh it wasn’t really a seismic shock, more of a mild surprise, given Toulouse’ performances this season – changed times.

Toulouse and Munster will probably hold on to their top seeding in the HEC for a while (it’s based on four previous year’s results), so it would be a surprise if they disappeared as Wasps did, but they are firmly exiting stage left when it comes to winning the thing.

If Generation X is heading for the glue factory, who will be Generation Y?

Last year’s final was the first since 1999 not to have any of the former Big Four in it, and it had a fresh feel to it. Leinster’s stirring second half comeback after Northampton’s tactical coup early on was great to watch, and made the Irish province first and strongest of our contendors for the NKOTB. The 2011 trophy gave Leinster their second title, having broken the establishment hold on the HEC in 2009 (beating 3 of them along the way), and the bookies have them as favourites for a third this year. The age profile of the squad is generally positive, albeit with a few (key) caveats, at second row and at 13 mainly. If Joe Schmidt sticks around and the squad don’t become sated, Leinster could be at the top level throughout this decade.

Bosh!!

Their opponents in this year’s semi-finals are Clermont Auvergne. This is a team that has been knocking at the door of European greatness for a while, and which has a great domestic underage record – look out for Jean Marcel Buttin, the next superstar of French back play. Clermont have run the gauntlet of painful defeats (mostly to Irish provinces) and have made progress incrementally, crucially appearing to learn the lessons of what is needed to get across the line in this competition. With a frightening pack, the little genius Morgan Parra and a cabal of threatening backs, it’s a pretty intimidating side. If this isn’t the year (and it is perfectly set up for them), it will come soon – the best youth structure in France, huge institutional drive, and a fat chequebook will help. Their time will most definitely come. 

After era-defining wins over two of the former big four this season, Ulster look to have arrived somewhere close to the top table. The influence of their imports has been highlighted, not least by Farrelly, but they have a core of hardened Irish mid-20-something leaders (Best, Tuohy, Henry, Ferris, Cave, Trimble, Bowe) who can guide their golden (Irish) youngsters (McAlister, Marshalls L&P, Spence, Jackson, Stevenson, Henderson, Annett) towards the goal of maintaining their new-found status. It’s a pity there is a rather large elephant on the horizon, in the form of a new coaching ticket. Still, we gotta trust Humph and hope he takes Ludd’s Year 1 approach and keeps interference to a minimum. We suspect McLaughlin’s influence is not as large as it should be anyway, and that Ulster are self-coached to a degree, so we can only hope the change doesn’t derail them.

This time six months ago, we would have bracketed Northampton Saints as a team with the hardness to step on and stay at the apex of European rugby. However, this season has been a disaster – the European campaign collapsed following Munster’s 41 phases and the Scarlets ambush in Franklins Gardens. Add in the break-up of the team of 2011 (Wilson, Downey, Ashton all leaving), injuries to key players (Lawes), suspensions (Hartley, Clark), the Mallinder-for-England campaign and selection indecision (Myler/Lamb), and its pretty clear the Saints have lost their way. It will be interesting to see how they recover (they hauled themselves from Championship ignominy to the cusp of HEC glory in no time), but for now they are back in the chasing pack.

Saracens are another team who have looked on the verge of something until recently. They toughed out a bruising pool, and looked set for a long run after drawing a home quarter-final against a team that is flaky on the road. It didn’t happen however, and the Premiership’s tough guys were ground into the dust by Clermont. Again, they won’t go away, but until they win a game against one of the new biggies, they aren’t there yet.  Whinging about the salary cap doesn’t show a big club mentality, though, and Niegel Wray’s words from over a decade ago are still relevant: there is no place called Saracens.

Outside those, Toulon have the bank manager and the megalomaniac owner to build on last years quarter-final. Their evisceration of Munster in last years pool stages was the type of statement that reverberated across Europe (not least in Tara Street where it still feeds Gerry’s anti-Pearson rants), but they failed to qualify for this year’s event after a late collapse in the Top 14. If they make it this time around (they should), expect them to be by far the biggest Great White in the fourth seeds ocean – one to avoid, and one Irish teams are less likely to avoid than most due to the vagaries of the draw (Munster and Leinster drew French teams from that pot this year).

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the lack of Welsh and Scottish (and Italian) names in that selection above. Better to be a has-been than a never-were, and the lamentable Welsh regions must be categorised as just that.  Their ongoing under-achievement is beginning to bubble to the surface in the Principality, as the players all head off to brighter shores. As for the rest, let’s hope Embra’ superb achievement this year is the start something across Hadrian’s Wall, but when you only attract 3,000 or so to most league games, you aren’t going to compete consistently.

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4 Comments

  1. Giuseppe

     /  April 11, 2012

    Ulster make the knockout stages for the first time in god knows how long and suddenly they’re one of the top 4 teams in Europe? Get a grip, Edinburgh should be there by that logic!

  2. Anonymous

     /  April 11, 2012

    Giuseppe, Ulster made the knock outs last year… but were beaten away to Northampton in the quarter finals.

  3. Whoa Giuseppe, back up the truck – Embra!!!

    Note we said “After era-defining wins over two of the former big four this season, Ulster look to have arrived somewhere close to the top table.” – what we mean is that Ulster have leapfrogged into the “serious contenders” bracket at the same time the former Big 4 have dropped out of it. We don’t think that’s going too far – they have reached the knockout stages 2 years in a row, qualified from a horrendous pool and become the first team to win a live Heineken Cup game in Thomond (remember Munster were already through when Leicester won there) – by anyone’s standards that means they are close to the top table.

    We also noted the promise of their youngsters and the current squad – I don’t think it’s outlandish to suggest this isn’t a once-off year for them.

  4. Great post. Harlequins are a club that has built solid foundations. They own their own ground and have the potential to attract consistently decent gates. O’Shea and Evans run a steady ship and the bulk of their team is young and home grown. Nick Evans looks like playing out his career there which is a major plus for the club. Also, Leicester are too big to be discounted. The Youngs-Ford-Flood-Tuilagi midfield has a lot of football and the club has a winning pedigree.

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