End of the Pier Affair

The Amlin Cup has narrowed down to an all-French mid-table affair – a sort of mini-Top 14 5th place playoff.  While the Heineken Cup has been low on French might this season, the Amlin quarter finals were home to some impressive end-of-the-pier powerhouses. 

Toulon smashed an injury-hit Harlequins to smithereens and Biarritz’ seconds went to Wasps and won, albeit while doing their very best to let the Londoners back into a won game.  Brive and Stade ground out their wins, with Stade in particular riding out their good fortune in overcoming a gutsy Exeter side.

It serves as a reminder that the Heineken Cup would benefit greatly from the presence of strong versions of the old school French sides.  The nouveau riche likes of Castres, Racing and Montpellier are content to glide through the tournament, and if they pick up a couple of wins then all the better, effectively reducing the French contingent to Toulouse, Clermont and Biarritz.

The Basques have played like a pub team for much of the season, yet were the highest-ranked non-qualifier and were in contention for a QF place right up to the final game of the groups stages (if Racing Metro had scored a late try against Cardiff, Biarritz were in). They were never the most watchable of sides, but on Friday their destructive scrummaging and string-pullers at 8 and 9 made the entry-fee worthwhile – just!

Stade are a pale shade of the side that won back-to-back Top Catorze titles with Pichot and Hernandez running the show.  Even the iron-willed Michael Cheika has struggled to impose his way on them, but they could still sneak into next year’s competition, despite having Tom Palmer. 

Brive were last a force in the Heineken Cup in 1998, back when Bath were European powerhouses (Oooooooooooooooooohh!!!), and don’t look like rediscovering competitiveness any time soon. 

Toulon are the odd one out, card-carrying members of the Nouveau Riche brigade, but they have such ambition that they will be competitive in the Heineken Cup, like last year, where they made the knock-0ut stages in their first attempt.  They are third in the Top 14, so should make it next year, and we’d welcome their presence despite their occasional reversion to puke rugby – they’d give the tournament a real go, as we pointed out yesterday. (As an aside, if they do qualify it would give Steffon Armitage the platform to make a bolt for Lions selection – every time we’ve seen this guy play for Toulon he’s been brilliant.)

The other missing ingredient is those headbangers Perpignan, who’d either strong-arm you off the park (see Welford Road last year, when their draw was better than Clermont and Ulster, both semi-finalists, managed this season) or implode amid a raft of stupid penalties (see the semi-final last year – stupid and dangerous penalties handed the game to the Sinners on a plate).  The Heineken Cup is poorer without the likes of Marius Tincu and James Hook.

Vive l’Old School! And remember France are now guaranteed a seventh HEC representative for next season – let’s hope it’s someone fun.

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