Monday, June 15, 2015

Stade Francais-12 Clérmont-6



The French club rugby season is long.  

Wait - just the one “o” doesn’t do it justice, let me try again.  

It’s loooooooooooong.  We’re talking “Game of Thrones winter” long.

You’re reading an independent blog right now so the chances are you’re enough of a rugby fan to know the above fact already, but it still needs to be said.  You can hardly ignore it when an annual top-level sporting tournament begins on August 15 with 14 teams and doesn’t have one left standing until the following June 13.

Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be harsh to expect the culmination of such a marathon to be at least a little worth the wait?  Now to be fair, rugby cup finals at any level are never guaranteed to be epic contests - we only need think of the RWC2011 decider as an example and we only get one of those every four years.  

But still I have to say that for all the window dressing, all the pre-match pomp with hot ladies in flowing robes, all the pundits wearing gaudy suits, all the sheer bulk to the trophy they’re playing for...this was an absolutely awful 80 minutes of rugby for fans to watch.   So you can only imagine what it was like to a blogger who watched it twice!!!

Clérmont have cultivated a reputation as “chokers”, and this was certainly no exception.  12 Top 14 deciders, just 1 win.  2 appearances in Europe’s showpiece, no wins.  And it’s not just finals either...Leinster had some lucky stars to thank after overcoming them in both final eight and final four over the years.

In many ways, their offensive failures in this match were symbolic of their more general ones in knockout matches.  When they got the ball it was often on the strength of their defence, which I have to say was well focused throughout.  And once they got it, they were often handy enough shipping out to the wider channels.  So far so good, much like the way they can negotiate through the regular season at home and pool phase in Europe.

But when the ball reaches the wing, you need someone there who knows how to get the job done, the way Nemani Nadolo has done for the Crusaders in Super Rugby this season.  And by the same token, a team has to know how to produce the goods on the day of a final, as those same Crusaders have done in the past not to mention others like Toulouse, Toulon and of course Leinster.

On this occasion, however, Les Jaunards just did not seem to have what it took to apply that finish, and what’s more to see players bundled into touch time and time again is extremely frustrating to see at this level.  I’m sure missing names like Fofana, Davies and Nakaitaci didn’t help much, but that doesn’t really cut it for me.

But even when you take the offensive production out of the equation, they still had every opportunity to win this match.  When Leinster overcame them in that crazy Heineken quarterfinal at the RDS in 2010 I couldn’t work out why the French outfit persisted with Brock James taking placekicks when Morgan Parra was on the park - the scrum half’s had just helped France win a Grand Slam.

Yet it would seem that donning that yellow jersey in a final would affect any player, and Parra fluffed his lines on two extremely easy kicks from the tee in the opening half-hour, another thing you could definitely do without with a trophy on the line.

When James was introduced in the second half there seemed to be a buzz in the crowd that the yellow tide was going to turn somehow but this never happened.  And for all the hype around Nick Abendanon, my opinion hasn’t changed that there is a bandwagon of fans who focus on one or two good contributions yet ignore the one or two not-so good ones.

Now by only harping on Clérmont up to this point it may seem like I’m being unfair to the newly crowned champions of France, Stade Francais.  And it’s true that despite the fact that they finished fourth on the table (as did English champs Sarries I might add), to defeat Racing, Toulon and ASM in successive weeks is no mean feat.

While Parra struggled from the kicking tee, the Parisians had entrusted the role to Morné Steyn.  He’s hardly an out-half in the French “aristocrat” mould, but he certainly knows how to slot his three-pointers; at least he did in the first half to build a 9 point lead his team really should not have had as they were drawing blanks on the try-scoring front just like their opponents.

I was impressed by their scrum-half Julien Dupuy, whom Leinster fans will remember from his appearance for the Leicester Tigers in the 2009 Heineken final.  Whatever troubles Stade were having with the ball were in spite of his efforts throughout to keep the tempo going - had they crossed the line he’d be my man of the match, but given the overall dourness of the contest I’d say it would be fitting to award it to Steyn.

One thing that definitely did not impress me about Stade was their set-piece, in particular their lineout which was pitiful at times although Clérmont couldn’t really capitalise.  While there were definitely some champagne moments in their overall progress through the playoffs, this was far short of a championship-worthy display.

All in all I think it’s fair to say that the title was lost rather than won on Saturday.

On a side note I have to say I’m a bit concerned that Heinke van der Merwe was allowed to play on after clearly passing out after a scrum popped up in the second half.   I know he played on and seemed ok, but in such a high-profile match I believe we need clarification when incidents like this happen.  If he wasn’t a candidate for the protocols after that I don’t know who was.

Given the path I have travelled on this writeup so far, it would seem one question in particular is being begged...was Stade winning the title from 4th spot somehow a product of the overly-long French campaign?  Well my short answer would be that it certainly doesn’t help!!!

Though Clérmont finished 2nd on the Top 14 “classement”, they actually had the best record with 16 wins, 1 draw and “just” 9 defeats.  That’s a 63% win ratio which would have cracked neither the top 4 in the Pro12 nor the top 5 in the Premiership.

It’s no secret that since rugby union went pro it has been the “sugar daddy” owners in France who have done the most to push the boundaries of the sport to maximise revenue.   If you insist on all your teams playing each other home and away, I reckon the Pro12 and Premiership have more than enough with their 22 regular season matches, yet the French insist on 26, and what’s more in recent years they even added an extra layer to the playoffs.

This means that if you’re to do well on two fronts, as Clérmont did this season, you are expecting your players to take part in an insane amount of fixtures.  Les Jaunards’ 2014/15 campaign involved a whopping 37 competitive outings, and there would have been room for a 38th if they finished a spot lower in the Top14.

We think we have it bad here in Ireland with player management?  I’d say Bernard Jackman over in Grénoble would dream about having our “problems” on that front.  The fixture congestion forces coaches to prioritize home matches - this is a well known fact about the Top 14 but just because it’s commonplace doesn’t make it a good thing.

Rugby more than any other sport is severely hampered quality-wise by constant chopping and changing of matchday squads, yet in the Top14 it is de rigeur (pardon my French).  

And while you can forgive a businessman for being reluctant to reduce the amount of fixtures due to perceived loss of revenue, you might think again when you consider the much-improved TV deal the sugar daddies signed in 2014.  This kind of payout means the cash keeps flowing and pretty much guarantees the status quo will remain in place even if the fans are starting to stay away (total league attendance down by over 275,000 this season compared to last).

Just so we’re clear, I am and always have been in favour of professionalism in rugby but while 20 years on I still wouldn’t be quite sure exactly where “the line” is, I am definitely of the opinion that the French have gone well beyond it and it’s having an obvious effect on the rugby we’re seeing on the pitch.

I’m probably straying too close to my pet peeve subject of the world rugby calendar (on which I have only recently harped) so I had best stray back towards the match in question, though there’s little more to be said about it other than to congratulate the fans of Stade Francais, and in particular Sergio Parisse.

Chances are the skipper won’t taste a whole lot of success at test level, and going by reports today he may not even get a chance to play!  He might not have been at the tip top of his game on Saturday night but to be fair, nobody was.  And it’s not like he didn’t draw on his vast experience right at the death when he pretended to dither over the decision of what to do with a penalty before instructing Steyn to slot the 3, an action which FINALLY brought the curtain down on the 2014/15 European season.

But whatever about the length a journey it took to get there, nothing can take this second Bouclier de Brennus away from him.  We can only hope that when the giant shield is handed out this time next year in the Nou Camp it will be after a display on a par to those shown by Lionel Messi & co.  JLP

Next week our Monday match writeup will feature the Tbilisi Cup finale between Georgia and Emerging Ireland.

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