IT FEELS AS if we are back in 2015 again. Two French sides are on their way to a Champions Cup final, the fifth time there has been a Gallic showdown on the deciding day.
Talk of new a new era, then, is inevitable, even understandable. After all the Top14 contributed three of this year’s semi-finalists, five of the eight quarter-finalists while Montpellier have made it to the Challenge Cup final, reinforcing the idea that one league is way out in front of the others.
And you can’t argue with that – not this year.
Nor can you dispute what they have going for them; a huge TV deal combined with a plethora of rich, egomaniacal owners who are prepared to outbid the rest of the world to sign the game’s best players. And that is before we get to the point Robin Copeland made earlier this week, how French clubs have finally seen the value in getting fitter and more organised in recent years.
Given all we’ve said there, how can Irish clubs be expected to compete with all that?
Well, the answer is that they have done so since 1999. More to the point, they have certainly been in worse situations than this.
Leinster players after today’s match. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO
Remember 2015/16? Leo Cullen may never forget it. He was in his rookie year as head coach at Leinster and his opening Champions Cup campaign ended with five defeats from six pool games. This was also the year when Munster were humiliated by 14-man Stade Francais in Paris and dubbed a ‘borderline disgrace’ by a club legend.
But something else happened in that 2015/16 season. A year after it was widely predicted that the Top 14 clubs were about to get a stranglehold of this competition for ever and a day, they ended up losing their grip on power – Saracens beating Racing 92 in the final.
And since then? The five subsequent titles have been shared between three Anglo-Irish clubs, Saracens, Exeter and Leinster.
So perhaps we should draw breath before jumping to conclusions. French clubs have always been big players in this competition – Toulouse winning the inaugural competition, Brive the second one – but it might surprise you to know that over the course of its 26-year history, the scoreboard reads: 10 competition wins for English sides, nine for French clubs and seven for the Irish provinces.
Empires fall almost as quickly as they rise in European rugby: Leicester reached five of the first 14 Heineken Cup finals but haven’t been to one since; Toulouse are in their first decider in 11 years after appearing in six up until 2010; Toulon have done nothing either side of their three-in-a-row.
La Rochelle overpowered Leinster today. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO
“For us, playing Leinster was hugely exciting,” said Jono Gibbes, La Rochelle’s director of rugby. “It was the first time in the club’s history that we met them. Even the fact they are an Irish team, not in the Top 14, just created a real buzz and excitement and that’s what Europe should be about. We’ve now got to get over a French team (Toulouse) in the final that have done a number on us home and away this year, that has a great European pedigree. So that’s another challenge.”
The challenge for the Irish provinces is to bounce back from this unimpressive year which evidently won’t be easy but – for Leinster in particular – is doable.
The addition of four heavyweight South African sides to make the Pro14 more competitive will help; as will the return to a more regular, pool stage aspect of this Champions Cup competition next year.
The truth is that Irish teams benefit from the absence of relegation in the Pro14, allowing them to peak for European fixtures – a luxury not available to English and French clubs, some of whom show indifference to Champions Cup rugby, especially when they are out of the running for a quarter-final place.
What’s more, home advantage counts; Leinster and Munster have shown that in the knock-out stages over the years. Once crowds return to grounds, we can once again expect to see Irish clubs punch above their weight, especially on their own sod.