This week we will be concerning ourselves with a magnificent game of rugby and a closer look at Europe on the eve of the Heineken Cup.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a magnificent game of rugby and a closer look at Europe on the eve of the Heineken Cup…
You'd have been hard-pushed to find fans exiting Ellis Park on Saturday not claiming 'that was the best game I have ever seen'. In terms of intensity, perhaps the second Lions Test in Pretoria in 2009 trumped it – not least because Beauden Barrett's solo effort handed New Zealand the tournament win 20 minutes before the end – but in terms of pure rugby skill and fitness, Saturday was a new benchmark.
How many times did the ball move from end to end to end? Even Zane Kirchner saw a couple of running options! When tries came, they were nearly always the result of consummate skill, so rarely the result of glaring errors.
As so often with the All Blacks, it was their ability to perform minute basic skills under heavy pressure that set them apart. Three times in two-on-one situations in cramped spaces there were sumptuous hands, perfect body position with shoulders and hips square to the defender, delicately-measured push passes at the right height, the recipient coming on at full steam from the right depth. Each of those situations yielded a try, two of them the brace that – along with Barrett's solo – killed the game.
And how about that Barrett solo? How about this for a subplot: Barrett, reasonably freshly on, is shoved into the turf by Jean de Villiers (it was reminiscent of Jonah Lomu hitting Mike Catt) as South Africa score their fourth try and hit the front. Three minutes later, Barrett steps inside a blitzing defender before dancing his way through the scrambling defence for the championship-winning try. That blitzing defender? Jean de Villiers…at times, you couldn't have made this game up.
Mental toughness. The Boks did have this game for the taking, but their error count jumped after their fourth try. New Zealand's did not at 15-7 down, nor did it at 27-24 down. The team that believed it would win and understood the habits inherent to winning did win. The team driven by passion and hope did not. Not this time.
But much evidence was there on Saturday of South Africa's improvement not only in skills but awareness of areas to attack with hand, including a persistent hammering at the channel just outside 13 which yielded a lot of change because of the improvement in execution. These two nations just got closer together still in terms of quality, the rest are a long, long way behind.
We can talk on and on about the Heineken Cup while the factions continue to fight, but to give it another slant we thought we might look at the financials behind the politics this week.
English and French clubs received 52 per cent of the HEC revenues on offer last season, with the rest split between the others. But because of the disparity in the number of sides in the competition, it meant English and French clubs (who are battling for places all season) received only about EUR 900,000 each, while the two Scottish and two Italian teams received around EUR 2.3m (and they don't even fight to qualify). The Welsh and Irish both lay about halfway between (and they barely have to fight to qualify).
In short, it is a legitimate grievance that the English and French clubs – and their umbrella organisations – have, particularly as the French in particular are often finalists. Why is the revenue not simply split up by participating team, and why is there not a quota of qualifiers per league, rather than per country?
Arguing that not having Scots and Italians in Europe could see them wiped off the map altogether is no longer valid in the professional era: life is tough. You either find the resources and manufacture something viable or you don't, just like a business.
Premier Rugby and now the Ligue National de France (LNR), France's club governing body also believe ERC do not maximize the Heineken Cup's potential in terms of revenue-gathering and that the BT sponsorship deal they have won would help to do that. The money being waved around is supposed to tempt the others over while filling up their clubs' coffers with a little more liquidity. Should the others flee to the dark side, ERC will disappear.
The revenue-maximising argument is hard to accept coming from the side that feels it is being hard done by financially. But it's tough not to see their point in the other financial terms.
Meanwhile, the Pro12 unions, who control their regions' purses, have troubles of their own. A likely increase in quality of the Pro12 caused by an absence of European rugby would probably not generate enough cash to make up the shortfall, although there would be potential to place one or two more international matches on the calendar to help.
But European rugby is a more important vitamin in their both financial and playmaking diet than it is to the French or English, particularly the French. These unions struggle to hold on to their players as it is – the Welsh are financially unable to negotiate contracts with their best players at the moment – so even a full-strength Pro12 is unlikely to make up for the Heineken Cup's absence when it comes to competition on offer for the aspiring world-beater.
Of course, these unions also know that to acquiesce to the English and French is to make the English and French clubs a lot richer. There's no guarantee they'd not be watching their players flock away even if they did meekly back down. 'A rock and a hard place' doesn't do justice to the positions of the four Pro12 unions at the moment.
Still, here's the turning point: BT wants European rugby, not Anglo-French rugby. The Pro12 unions want European rugby too, but not run by English clubs.
Would BT follow through and back an Anglo-French only competition? Do they have valid grounds to pull out, or re-negotiate? The vigour with which Premier Rugby is pushing the Rugby Champions' Cup through suggests that BT might be a lot less than happy if Premier Rugby loses part of Europe, unhappy enough to start pushing for their money back.
So it really is whoever blinks first: BT and Premier Rugby or ERC and their sponsors.
Yet on one thing all are agreed: to not have European rugby as it has been for the past glorious 17 years would be a catastrophe.
So – and echoing the words of ERC Chairman Derek McGrath whose impassioned plea reminded the squabbling few that there are a lot of fans and players being short-changed by all of this shenanigans at the moment:
We ask once again that RFU, FFR, FIR, WRU, IRFU, SRU, LNR, PR, ERC and BT please please please STFU, get heads together,talk sensibly and sort it out. The greatest club competition of all time is in your hands and you are killing it for us all.
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson