There may be tough times ahead but I’d bet on heart and courage over cash any day of the week

Bray People - - SPORT - SI­MON NOR­TON

SO WE have our fi­nal­ists for the last ever Heineken Cup fol­low­ing yet an­other weekend of dra­matic ac­tion in a com­pe­ti­tion that I, for one, will gen­uinely miss.

It’s al­most as if this year’s fi­nal in Cardiff is a syn­onym for the way that Euro­pean (and world) rugby is headed in the pro­fes­sional era as the rich South African con­sor­tium owned Sara­cens take on the wealthy comic book pro­pri­etor run Toulon. Money cer­tainly talks.

Of course I’m not at all bit­ter as a fan of a Mun­ster team that nar­rowly missed out but it’s a sad re­flec­tion on the fu­ture of the game.

As I’ve men­tioned be­fore it also doesn’t bode well for the abil­ity of the Ir­ish Prov­inces to com­pete at the high­est lev­els but you have to take heart from some of the more en­cour­ag­ing as­pects of this year’s com­pe­ti­tion.

There are more than just glim­mers from all four Ir­ish teams that sug­gest the chal­lenges ahead aren’t in­sur­mount­able.

To be­gin, let’s not for­get that we had three quar­ter fi­nal­ists, two of them at home and one of them un­beaten as top seeds.

While, by in large, they didn’t go en­tirely to plan you do have to say that Ul­ster were within an ill judged col­li­sion away from a semi-fi­nal.

Af­ter see­ing what Sara­cens did to a pow­er­house like Cler­mont last weekend (al­beit fol­low­ing an­other for­tu­nate ref de­ci­sion for Sar­ries) it makes you truly marvel at the for­ti­tude of the 14 men of Ul­ster.

There’s cer­tainly no shame in only go­ing down by two points to a team that scored tries for fun against the might of Wes­ley Fo­fana, Si­tiveni Si­vi­vatu and Mor­gan Parra. Cler­mont were at full strength for the ma­jor­ity of it as well.

No amount of money can buy the heart and pas­sion that the North­ern­ers showed.

By Le­in­ster’s high stan­dards they prob­a­bly didn’t have the great­est of com­pe­ti­tions but when the boys in blue were good they were al­most un­touch­able.

Their match against Northamp­ton in Franklin Gar­dens was ar­guably one of the team per­for­mances of the sea­son and sim­ply blew away a highly fan­cied Saints out­fit, par­tic­u­larly in the first half.

It’s a Northamp­ton side that are sec­ond in the Aviva Pre­mier­ship and also Am­lin Cup fi­nal­ists so it’s not to be sneezed at.

If Le­in­ster could have just em­u­lated even half of that per­for­mance a week later in the Aviva they would have avoided the dreaded Toulon away in the quar­ter-fi­nals. As the old say­ing goes though, if ifs and buts were pots and pans there’d be no need for tin­kers.

What it did do was re­mind us of the strength of this cur­rent Le­in­ster team and, while they may not have reached the stan­dards set in pre­vi­ous years, they still have the po­ten­tial to com­pete at the high­est lev­els.

Of course we can’t dis­cuss im­pres­sive team per­for­mances with­out men­tion­ing the David and Go­liath match up of Toulouse and Con­nacht ear­lier in the sea­son.

To beat the French aris­to­crats in their own back­yard was noth­ing short of mirac­u­lous for the Western­ers and re­sulted in their best Heineken Cup cam­paign ever.

It’s a real shame that the new stream­lined for­mat for the Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tions will hurt the smaller teams like Con­nacht more than most, par­tic­u­larly af­ter this im­proved sea­son.

If they can keep im­prov­ing un­der Pat Lam’s tute­lage who knows what they could be ca­pa­ble of but it does make it a lot harder for them.

Fi­nally we come to a Mun­ster side that would have loved so much to end their Heineken Cup ca­reers with an­other day of glory but alas it wasn’t to be.

Be­fore their match up with Toulon I’m afraid my head didn’t give them a snow balls chance in hell but my heart mur­mured no­tions of a mir­a­cle (I should prob­a­bly get that looked at).

As it turned out, this, rel­a­tively young Mun­ster side, were not over­awed by the oc­ca­sion against the har­lem glo­be­trot­teresque line up or the vo­cif­er­ous home sup­port but in­stead played some of the bet­ter rugby and prob­a­bly should have won the match.

A frus­trat­ingly high er­ror count, some bad de­ci­sion mak­ing at key times and a slightly bi­ased Wayne Barnes whis­tle (once again I swear I’m not bit­ter) con­spired to be the un­do­ing of Mun­ster.

There are plenty of pos­i­tives to take from this loss.

As I said they’re quite a young side and many of these play­ers will be around for a good few sea­sons to come.

Si­mon Zebo and Ian Keatly could barely speak with the emo­tion dur­ing their post match in­ter­views as the hurt tore them apart.

While many of us doubted that the vic­tory was pos­si­ble, the play­ers them­selves would have al­ways be­lieved.

They’ll use that feel­ing ev­ery time they need to go to the well for the next few sea­sons and I’m sure Axel Fo­ley will stoke the fires of re­morse when he takes charge next sea­son.

A team shows its heart by its de­fence and by deny­ing a tal­ented out­fit like Toulon a sin­gle try they dis­played that heart in spades.

It’s hard to pre­dict what will hap­pen in the next few sea­sons but our prov­inces have given us enough rea­son to be­lieve that we can go toe to toe the best money has to buy.

There may be some tough times ahead but I’d like to think I’d bet on heart and courage over cash and con­sor­tiums any day of the week.

Al­though that’s prob­a­bly why I’m not a very good gam­bler.

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