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