Planet Rugby

Loose Pass

29th April 2013 11:59


Saracens v Toulon: Jonny Wilkinson fans

How can Wilko be ignored?

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Lions, promotional actions gone wrong and the Cheetahs...

So that was that. Two Heineken Cup semi-finals out of the way and an all-French Heineken Cup Final, which should reduce the fears of Warren Gatland for last-minute injuries in his Lions squad ahead of the tour. Now he only has the Premiership and RaboDirect Pro 12 to worry about. He might feel a little more confident about the 36 men he names on Tuesday actually lasting until the tour.

Hmmm. Unless...

How can the claims of Jonny Wilkinson now be ignored? Time and time again he has proved himself in Toulon colours, each time the level of intensity and competition rises, Jonny raises the bar with it. His performance on Sunday against perhaps Europe's finest defence was just superb. He distributed well, saw the few gaps, kicked as only he can, and defended with his usual tigerish physicality.

Owen Farrell's myriad of flaws were exposed opposite him. With Wales still struggling for any kind of consistency in the number ten jersey, Scotland offering not much beyond good but green players and Toby Flood just not answering enough of the questions asked of him, the only other shoe-in for the Lions is Jonathan Sexton.

So ask again: how can Jonny be ignored? Big-match temperament, reliability, fitness, experience... all the ingredients there. You can experiment with generations in international team cycles and club team schedules, but this is one team you just take the best for. nd Jonny is the best - by some distance - right now.

Moving on from that, we can now reveal we had Warren Gatland tailed on Saturday and Sunday, from the moment he left his Holiday Inn hotel suites to the times he spent sitting poker-faced in the stands, to the meals he had in the restaurants and back to his hotel rooms.

Finally, on Sunday night and after a hefty sum paid to the waiter, we got what we wanted. The napkins upon which Gatland had been scribbling while working his way through a couple of Kangaroo steaks were whisked from the table and delivered to us in our run-down B&B.

We worked our way through the crossings-out, doodles of Quade Cooper with a target on his chest and a series of line-out number codes and finally came up with the 36 names due to be announced on Tuesday's press conference:

B&I Lions touring party 2013: Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Cian Healy, Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola, Euan Murray, Richard Hibbard, Rory Best, Tom Youngs, Paul O'Connell, Geoff Parling, Alun-Wyn Jones, Richie Gray, Ryan Jones, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Sean O'Brien, Chris Robshaw, Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip, Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Greig Laidlaw, Jonny Sexton, Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Brad Barritt, Brian O'Driscoll, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny, Sean Maitland, Tim Visser, Rob Kearney.

You heard it here first!

What a wonderful idea it was to have the Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham! Just think, 80,000 people all come to see the - probably - finest teams in England and France going toe-to-toe, a record attend... oh... wait.... what are all those empty seats?

What on earth happened? Surely even the return of Jonny would be enough to fill the second tier alone? But no, only the first tier of three was open, and even that was not sold out. 26,000 people in an 80,000-capacity arena left a distinctly hollow and echoey feeling to the atmosphere.

The price of the tickets probably had something to do with it, as did the fact that it was a Sunday, so far fewer French fans were able to flock over from Toulon's working class, the life-blood of their club.

But the organisers should surely have seen this and thought about it? We now live in times of austerity, persuading 80,000 people to part with between 20 and 80 pounds on a Sunday just before holiday season is always going to be a tough ask.

What is more important to promoters: Making a buck or actually creating an occasion? The only person to ever get this balance right was the pioneering Max Guazzini, who made sure, first and foremost, that the Stade de France was full for the gala games his Stade Francais team used to host, by dropping the prices of tickets to the most affordable level possible.

Obviously opening up more of the stadium costs more money, but here's some maths: 26,000 x 25 (average price for one of Sunday's tickets and the attendance) against 80,000 x 10. The answer? 650,000 against 800,000. We'd wager the extra 150,000 would cover the extra cost of opening up the rest of the stadium. Better atmosphere too.

Finally, while Europe reaches its zenith and the Lions now hove firmly into view, one quick look at the Super Rugby table shows what may end up being one of the best stories of the southern hemisphere season.

The Cheetahs are sitting pretty in the play-off spots at last, and will enjoy a guaranteed four points this week as a result of the weird bye week point allocation system.

For years the men from Bloem, marshalled by the implacable Naka Drotske, have been gallant losers, thrilling runners capable of the occasional shock. They've been plundered by bigger teams or lost their finest to Europe, yet every year they bounce back with edge-of-the-seat rugby and a never-say-die spirit.

Now this year it could be their time. Many youngsters are maturing, the older loyal heads are reaping the rewards of staying and the team undoubtedly has the best togetherness of them all. They just look like they are having fun.

So we are right behind them. It's their time, and it's a testament to a lot of hard work and willingness to overcome whatever is put in their way.

Loose pass compiled by Richard Anderson

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