Feel The Glamour

Two finals will take place this week; one between two regional towns from the south of France, and the other between two mighty capital cities, in a glamorous, dazzling and sure to be entertaining affair in the heart of leafy Dublin 4.

Quite frankly, you can take your regional outposts like Leicester, Toulon and Limerick – it’s about time we had a meeting of great metropolises in a European final.  Leave the truffle hunters from the Auvergne to their little scrap with Toulon on saturday, and put truffle oil on your entrees before the Amlin Final instead.

Yes, give us the glitz and glamour of the pink-clad Parisians, led by the magnificently resplendant and wonderfully handsome Sergio Parisse.  These fellows, fresh from the lower reaches of the Top 14, know that all that business of winning silverware and cheating at the breakdown is just poor bloody form, and the really important thing is to look sensational no matter what the result.  In the mighty Amlin Cup, they’ve rightly dispensed with all that beastly Top Quatorze thuggery and simply gone back to the great Parisian style of playing, with terrific dash and verve.

And their opponents are of course, the European champions Leinster, the All Blacks of the Northern Hamisphere whose passing accuracy is second to none and who live to get the ball into the mitts of their three-quarters.  Watch in delight as the great Brian O’Driscoll pops a pass out the back door into the onrushing Blackrock-educated Ian Madigan.  What a match shall ensue!  To the winner the spoils!

Some tips for maximising enjoyment:

Head to Paris Bakery on Moore Street (yes, Moore Street, it’s a bit filthy, but try to gt through it) at lunchtime and dine out on their wonderful array of Parisian style pastries, as well as superb meats, cheeses and breads from their recently opened deli.  Maybe even bring some along to the game.  They’ll go down terribly well if you’re a bit peckish.  Or wet.

Dress appropriately.  The Parisian fans are a stylish brigade and we don’t want to let our side down.  Baggy jeans and hoodies should not be seen anywhere near the ground.  Head to Brown Thomas for a spruce up beforehand if you’re feeling sartorially inferior.  Your Leinster jersey should be fitted, and your scarf knotted just-so.

Forget about pints, go to the Corkscrew on Chatham Street and sneak one of these bad boys into the ground under your shirt, and quaff it down at regular intervals.  Plastic wine glasses are acceptable in this instance, but only because of the logistical difficulty with getting real ones past security.

After the match, go directly to La Maison and order the steak dish for two.  C’est magnefique!  Pichet is also to be recommended, and their pork belly is without match in this city.

A splendid occasion awaits tomorrow night, and we will be there to enjoy it.

What the hell is going on at… Stade Francais

Phew. It all got a little too desperate for comfort at Stade Francais.  Just off the back of a miserable season (11th in the Top 14 and controversially denied an Amlin Cup at the death), they were saved from bankruptcy and spared relegation by the last minute intervention of appropriately named technology firm director Thomas Savere.  Under French league rules, clubs have to balance the books or face relegation – so Stade had to find €6.6m from somewhere or face deomtion to the third tier of French rugby.  They appeared to have the cash ‘dans le sac’ previously but a deal with a shady-sounding Canadian investment firm fell apart amid accusations of fraud, with Stade now suing the company, and three people arrested so far.
As to whether Savare will continue in the extravagant style of former President Max Guazzini’s remains to be seen.  Guazzini’s marketing hasn’t been to everyone’s taste: outrageous strips, pink goalposts, Gloria Gaynor songs and homoerotic calendars are at odds with the Anglo-Irish ideology of rugby (basically large men kicking lumps out of each other and hoofing the ball back and forth), but Whiff of Cordite has always saluted the glitzy approach.  After all, if you come from Paris, home to the two bottle lunch and one of the style, art and romance capitals of the world, and your rivals were from provincial backwaters down south, why not play the glamour card?  And why not get Sergio Parisse and co. to strip off for a calendar and get the gay community behind the team?  The theme of ‘Paris against the provinces’ has followed Stade around since their first final meeting with Bordeaux’s Stade Bordelais in 1899.
Besides, it’s not as if they didn’t get results.  Guazzini ressurected Stade after 50 years floating around the lower divisions, establishing them as the most succesful team in France this century.  Since 2000 they have won the coveted Bouclier four times (once more than Toulouse), most recently in 2007 playing a high octane brand of rugby built around stellar half backs Agostin Pichot and Juan Martin Hernandez.  Christophe Dominici, Fabien Galthie and Diego Dominguez are among the greats to have recently donned the pink, while Parisse (now captain) and Rodrigo Roncero are still on the books.  But the current squad looks a pale shadow of former championship-winning sides.  And with the swanky two-kisses-only denizens of Paris at best ambivalent about rugger, the newly-minted success of old school Racing Metro means they are no longer the only club in the city with lofty ambitions.
What Michael Cheika makes of it all is anyone’s guess.  But he has his own problems and faces a disciplinary hearing on 19 July for comments made after the Amlin fiasco.  If he can re-establish Stade as a force to be reckoned with in France and Europe from this low ebb it will surpass even his achievements with Leinster.

Top of the Flops

All the silverware is still up for grabs, but for a bunch of teams, the season is already at an end. No shame in the performances of the likes of Treviso, who achieved their aim of respect at home in the Magners, or Exeter, who stayed well clear of relegation in the Premiership, but a bunch of teams will be taking home a sorry looking report card to their parents…

Glasgow Warriors
11th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Having been fired to third in last season’s ML by Dan Parks’ boot and the exuberant Killer B’s, this was a depressing reversion to type. Thom Evans was badly missed, Kelly Brown left for Saracens, and injuries hampered the campaign. Little wonder Max Evans is off to Castres. The misery was compounded by Andy Robinson withdrawing several key players, including Richie Gray, from the last few rounds of the ML.

Ospreys
4th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Whiff of Cordite has a confession to make. Following last season’s finale when Ospreys won in Thomond Park and clinched the title in the RDS, we erroneously thought Ospreys had located their cojones and would pose a significant threat in Europe this year. How wrong could we be? Weak-willed and negative in Europe, they blew their chance against a desperately out of sorts London Irish. In the ML, they were no better, but somehow fell over the line into fourth in spite of looking like they don’t really care. Never mind, Munster will beat them. Decline could be permanent, with Mike Philipps, Lee Byrne, James Hook and Jerry Collins off to pastures new. How long until Bowe bolts for the exit?

Stade Francais
11th in Top Catorze, Amlin finalists
Ok, they can still win the Amlin, but 11th in the Top 14 is a shameful performance for such an illustrious club. No longer the moneybags they used to be, but with the like of Parisse, Basteraud and Beauxis on the books, nobody should be looking for excuses. Primed for a clearout this summer, with a new side built in the manager’s image hopefully emerging. But, one has to wonder, has the power balance in the French capital shifted to Racing Metro?

Toulon
8th in Top 14, QF in HEC
A decent showing in their first season in Europe, but given their vast resources and extraordinary playing roster, they should be challenging for the Bouclier. The suspicion remains that their team of expensive mercenaries lack heart, and it was a pleasure to see unheralded Montpellier pip them to the playoff spot this weekend. Oh, and their brand of 10-man rugby is borderline unwatchable.

Wasps

9th in Premiership, QF in Amlin
Two words: Andy Powell.

HEC-xy Boy

A momentous weekend ahead in European rugby – the last weekend of the regular season in France, England and the Magners. Since most play-off places are pretty much nailed down, lets talk instead about who will get into next season’s European Cup instead.

Qualifying automatically are 6 teams from England and France, 3 from Ireland and Wales and 2 from Scotland and Italy. The winners of this years HEC and AC will qualify, or earn their country an extra spot if they are already qualified through their league. However, if Saints and Quins do the business, England only gets 1 extra place, so this 24th place passes on to the highest ranked side who didn’t previously qualify.

So, who is in so far?

England: Leicester, Saracens, Gloucester, Northampton and Swashbuckling Bath
France: Toulouse, Racing Metro, and almost certainly Clermont and Castres
Ireland: Munster, Leinster, Ulster
Wales: Cardiff, Ospreys, Scarlets
Plus the usual Scottish and Italian patsies.

The final English place is between Irish and Quins. Irish are away to Leicester and Quins at home to Sarries. If Quins get 4 more match points than Irish, they get the last place. Both Leicester and Sarries have qualified with home semi-finals, so its hard to know what teams they will put out. Irish firmly in the box seat here, but we have a little fancy for Quins.

The French situation is more complex. Toulon (70 points), Biarritz (68), Montpellier (67) and Bayonne (67) are all in the mix. The big game is Montpellier-Toulon. The other 2 play already-relegated La Rochelle and Bourgoin, so you would have to expect 5 points each, meaning Toulon need to win and Montpellier need a bonus point win. Toulon have a bit of momentum at present, so we are going for Biarritz and Toulon to make it.

However, the really interesting question is if one of the other 2 make it – Toulon this year came in as bottom seeds, but not only did they qualify, the competition within the pool ensured no other team came through with them. If Bayonne or (especially) Montpellier make it, they are a very tough draw, and don’t forget Bayonne are taking out the chequebook this summer.

And finally, the “bonus” places for trophy winners:
If Leinster and Harlequins win, Connacht and Quins/Irish qualify.
If Leinster and Stade win, Connacht and Stade qualify.
If Saints and Stade win, Quins/Irish and Stade qualify.
If Saints and Quins win, Quins/Irish and Perpignan qualify, as Perpignan are the highest ranked team not already qualified.

Note: up to 22 of this seasons 24 participants can get back in – is the HEC becoming a self-perpetuating European rugby elite?