The stakes were high when Toulon and Clermont Ferrand lined up for the European Champions Cup final and Gloucester and Edinburgh battled it out for the Challenge Cup. Who placed the winning bets and who backed a loser?
We can all accuse Toulon of buying their success, and there is no doubt their riches have allowed them to assemble an unparalleled squad, but they still deserve plaudits for becoming the first side to win the top tier European cup three times in a row thanks to Saturday’s Champions Cup final triumph over Clermont Auvergne.
Money can get you a long way, particularly against teams who have smaller budgets, but there is a lot more to creating a truly great rugby team than just opening your cheque book. The character of the players as well as their talents, the skill of the coaches to manage all the egos and create a proper squad ethos, the ability of the players to produce their best on the big stage – all of these things are important and Toulon have mastered them.
Toulon led 16-11 at half-time in the Champions Cup final and extended that lead to 19-11 before Nick Abendanon scored a wonder-try for Clermont Auvergne to make it 19-18. It looked as though the balance of the game was shifting decisively towards Clermont, until a piece of individual brilliance from Australian wing Drew Mitchell gave the initiative back to Toulon.
He received a pass after a lineout around half-way, scorched through a gap, swerved and stepped his way around Jonathan Davies and Abendanon to touch down for the try. Leigh Halfpenny failed with the conversion but the six-point gap proved to be enough and Mitchell’s contribution was vital to Toulon’s success.
Nice one, Nick
Nick Abendanon joins the ranks of the Saints from the losing side, as his 63rd minute try put Clermont right back into the game. The Englishman caught a poor clearance from Bryan Habana and ran back at the Toulon defence, chipped beautifully over their heads and collected his own kick to claim a stunning score.
He ran 168m with the ball in hand during the final – by far and away the most ground gained by any player in the match – but had to settle for a runners up medal.
May Day celebration
The evening before the Champions Cup final, Gloucester beat Edinburgh 19-13 in the European Challenge Cup final, thanks in no small part to Man of the Match Jonny May. For once the wing wasn’t on the scoresheet himself, but he created a try for Billy Twelvetrees with a brilliant run from halfway and a perfectly timed pass.
May came within a whisker of scoring himself after 25 minutes when a run from his own 22 was only stopped by a superb tap-tackle from Cornell du Preez.
Accused by some of lacking the all-round game to go with his devastating pace, May was also excellent under the high ball, didn’t miss a tackle and even stopped a drive on the line.
If no less a figure than Brian O’Driscoll calls your performance “exceptional” and “phenomenal” you have plenty to be proud of. Gloucester fans have a new reason to remember this 1st May as May Day.
Fingers of fate
Edinburgh No 8 Cornell du Preez executed not one, but two superb tap-tackles to stop Gloucester’s most potent strike runners from scoring. As well as bringing May down a couple of strides from the line, he also halted a dangerous break from Charlie Sharples in the first quarter. The two tackles showed what great athleticism and determination du Preez has and Edinburgh will hope to use him to greater effect nextseason after he missed most of this campaign through injury.
Who’s the daddy?
Much was made before the Edinburgh v Gloucester clash of the head-to-head battle between Scotland’s top two No 9s, Greig Laidlaw and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. It was the more experienced Gloucester man who out-shone the young pretender and Laidlaw’s cool head and excellent game management really came into play when Gloucester were defending a six-point league with 14 men in the closing stages.
He guided them through 20 phases to wind down the last five minutes of the clock, mostly just popping a pass to the nearest forward and occasionally spreading the ball a little wider, but knowing that Edinburgh could not afford to give away a penalty and so would have to be careful at every breakdown. Hidalgo-Clyne’s day might come, but Laidlaw showed what a valuable asset he is this time.
Hats off – or should that be wigs off – to the Wasps Academy, who have launched an innovative fundraising campaign for The Brain Tumour Charity.
The young players will be handing out 15,000 Ashley Johnson-style wigs before next weekend’s Wasps v Leicester match, in return for donations of at least £1 per wig.
This #IAMASHLEYJOHNSON campaign aims to raise at least £10,000 for the UK’s largest dedicated brain tumour charity, while giving fans the chance to emulate their hero’s unmistakable hairstyle en masse at the Ricoh Arena.
Supporters who are unable to attend the match will still be able to donate by texting WASP88 to 70070 followed by the amount they want to donate.
Robinson to the rescue
Bristol went into the Greene King IPA Championship play-offs at the top ranked club, but looked in danger of coming unstuck as they trailed Rotherham 17-8 early in the second half of their semi-final first leg.
It looked like the West Country side were going to squander their home advantage, then – after a penalty from Gavin Henson reduced the arrears – replacement fly-half Nicky Robinson rescued the game for Bristol with a moment of magic.
He darted through a gap on the blindside and passed to David Lemi, who sprinted in for a try and from there Bristol kicked on to win the first leg 32-20.
A fine proposal
Maidstone rugby club skipper Ben Williams showed a bit of star quality on Sunday. First he led his team to victory in the RFU’s Intermediate Cup final at Twickenham, where they beat Bridgnorth 31-18 to cap off an unbeaten season. Then the loosehead prop called his girlfriend Jo down onto the pitch immediately after the trophy presentation, got down on one knee and proposed to her. Happily, she said yes!
No, No Noa
Noa Nakaitaci had a moment of madness which cost Clermont Auvergne three points during the Champions Cup final. He attempted to field a long kick from Sebastien Tillous-Borde, but he ended up dropping it over the touchline. The canny Bryan Habana raced up to Nakaitaci as he picked the ball up again in touch, pretending he wanted to take a quick throw, which would not have been allowed. The Clermont wing stupidly threw the ball away, Habana waved his arms at the officials to bring their attention to the misdemeanour and Toulon were duly awarded a penalty which Leigh Halfpenny kicked, to extend their lead to 19-11.
Gloucester almost lost the Challenge Cup final through their own indiscipline, as Ross Moriarty was sin-binned with 55 minutes on the clock then Bill Meakes was shown a red card eight minutes later.
Moriarty earned his time in the cooler by planting a knee in the back of Fraser McKenzie after a scrum broke up. The ball was nowhere near him and it was a needless bit of foul play which could easily have seen him get his permanent marching orders.
Meakes was sent off for a high tackle on Sam Beard when the Edinburgh centre ran across him as a support runner. Again, it was a reckless foul and while some might argue it could have been a yellow instead of a red, it still landed his team in a heap of trouble.
The mystery of the empty seats
Fantastic though the Challenge Cup final was (especially as a Gloucester fan), it was very frustrating to see scores of empty seats around the Twickenham Stoop, when I know there were fans who had tried and failed to buy tickets.
The Harlequins website says the ground’s capacity is 14,800 and the attendance on the night was only 14,316. So why, after Gloucester and Edinburgh members had snapped up their small allocations, was it only possible to buy tickets on Stubhub and Viagogo, at prices many times above the face value?
I tried and failed to get tickets from Ticketmaster 12 days before the final and spent more than an hour in a telephone queue to the Gloucester ticket office last weekend attempting in vain to buy a couple of tickets for family members.
Who had the tickets for the nearly 500 seats which turned out to be empty on the night?
Were they people who had bought them in the autumn, hoping their team would be there, then decided not to go and tried to sell them at inflated prices via the above mentioned websites? Were they sponsors and other companies, who had not handed back unwanted tickets?
Either way, there were Gloucester and Edinburgh fans watching the game on TV, who would have loved to have been there.
Selling tickets for the Champions Cup final throughout the season is a good idea, as it is difficult to sell it out when the fans of the clubs who reach the final only have a couple of weeks’ notice that their team has qualified. But if the Challenge Cup final is held at a smaller stadium, with a capacity of under 20,000, then the tickets should not be put on sale until after the semi-finals and the vast majority of them should go to the two clubs involved. I hope the organisers have a re-think next season.