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Dominant Irish clubs setting the standard
THERE was an English club, a Scottish club and a Welsh club. And two French and three Irish. No, not a lame schoolboy joke but the make-up of the last eight of the Heineken Cup, thefirst time that Ireland has been the dominant force on its own. With Cardiff and Edinburgh in the quarter-finals too that means five of the eight clubs left play in the Pro 12.
A lot is made of the uneven nature of European rugby. TheFrench clubs have an unfair advantage because there’s no salary cap in the Top 14, the Pro12 clubs have it easy because there’s no relegation and they qualify pretty much automatically so they can prioritise Europe above their domestic campaign. The Irish sides do so well because they represent an entire province rather than a city, with the entire Irish national side pretty much divided between the three teams in the quarter-finals; Munster, Leinster and Ulster.
There has to be some truth in all those assertions but it’s never a full answer. And our concern is not to lay bare the rights and wrongs of the tournament but to find some clues as to who is going to win it. And a look at how the markets stood at the start of the tournament is quite revealing.
In November – a later start than usual because of the World Cup – there were seven teams at 12-1 or shorter to win the Heineken Cup, and it was 25-1 bar those. Of that seven five are in the quarter-finals, the exceptions being Leicester (8-1) and Northampton (11-1). The three ‘unexpected’ qualifiers are Cardiff (33-1, reached the semis three years ago, won the Challenge Cup the following season), Ulster (former winners in 1999 and a side who have strengthened dramatically in the last couple of seasons), and Edinburgh (250-1 and perhaps the one real shock).
Edinburgh and Cardiff’s success in qualifying underlines one key factor in looking for a winner – the market tends to overrate star-studded French teams. Racing Metro were the favourites to win Pool Two, just 6-4 ahead of Cardiff, London Irish and Edinburgh, who took the honours at 16-1. They ended upwinning just one game in the pool in only their second campaign.
Clermont, meanwhile, were 10-1 fourth-favourites for the tournament but made heavy weather of qualifying and face an away assignment in the quarters, a stage they have never successfully navigated. Only Toulouse, France’s most successful team by a country mile, look to have a hope and even they are drawn away, though at rank outsiders Edinburgh.
As for top seeds Munster and Leinster, they could well meet in the final although Leinster would have to get through an away semi against either Saracens or Clermont if they can first see off Cardiff. But as that would make it a fifth Irish title in seven seasons, perhaps it’s notthe greatest surprise and another lesson must be that big prices about Ireland’s big two have to be taken.
Last year’s winners Leinster were as big as 16-1 before starting their campaign in a group comprising Clermont, Racing plus Saracens. This season Munster were 10-1 antepost as they were drawn alongside last year’s runners-up Northampton plus experienced sides Scarlets and Castres. Now they’re 7-2 shots with a home draw all the way to the final.
The success of Leinster and Munster points the way to European success. You can draft in stars from around the world but you can't build a team overnight, and the two Irish provinces spent years grafting their way to the top.The likes of Doug Howlett or Isa Nacewa have become part of the club set-up rather than superstars around whom the team is built. Those two teams have appeared in four finals and every point in those games bar one Nathan Hines try last season was scored by a home-grown player.
They, along with Leicester, Wasps and Toulouse, have been the dominant European forces, and the target for the likes of Saracens, Racing Metro and Clermont is to become like them, with a strong identity and club mentality plus a continuity of core players. Until then it's looking unlikely we'll see a new name on the Heineken Cup.