Loose Pass

Date published: April 12 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Europe’s final four, flying Fijians and dwindling crowds…

Domestic bliss

There’s always a furious debate to be had around the provenance of Europe’s final four, and the quarter-finals of this year’s European Cup provided no exception.

The run of French wins – four in the last eight years, three of which coming in all-French finals – led us to conclude that British and Irish clubs could no longer compete with the financial clout of the Top 14. It’s simply not a level playing field, we wailed.

And the recent spate of Irish winners – four in the last eight years, one of which coming in an all-Irish final – saw us besmirch the good name of the PRO12. European glory would almost be a given, we squealed, if you could chose to only pitch up for the bigger games.

And so it follows that we had trouble finding a plausible stance on this year’s quartet.

For the first time since 2007, English clubs occupy three of the four slots. This after contributing just three losing finalists in eight seasons. And as recently as 2012, ahead of a Twickenham final, not one English club progressed beyond the quarter-finals.

Now, just four years since that nadir, barring the scant possibility of Racing’s scrum standing up to Leicester in Nottingham, the stage is set for an all-English final in Lyon.

So what gives? What’s behind the dramatic turnaround?

Well, you could argue that the weird inversion of provincial Irish rugby has a part to play. Who would have thought that Connacht would ever lead the country’s charge? Who’d have thought that the twin giants of Leinster and Munster would ever stake their mighty legacies on inexperienced coaches?

As for flagging French efforts, they could be explained away by theories of supply and demand, of boom and bust. Toulon’s unprecedented three-from-three was the work of the club’s foreign legion, but it now seems that top All Blacks, Wallabies and Boks aren’t retiring from Test rugby at the rate they once were – much to the alarm of Mourad Boudjellal and his ilk.

But such caveats do English clubs an injustice. No, they aren’t shy of a bob or two, and they are not beyond the odd celebrity signing, but they have grasped the fact that a soaring edifice requires a sturdy foundation – and they have had the good sense to focus their gaze some distance down the track.

Sustainability now underlines every decision taken; it’s not sexy nor does it pay immediate dividends, but it might just work.

Three semi-finalists isn’t really anything to write home about just yet, but we truly believe they are the seeds of a European hegemony that will take some cracking.

Island style

Oh to be in Fiji now that April’s here!

Victory at the Hong Kong Sevens had them dancing in the streets of Suva – and dreaming of Olympic glory.

The tiny Pacific nation has yet to pick up an Olympic medal of any hue but are now favourites to strike gold in Rio.

Whatever your national allegiance and however deep it is ingrained, you’d be of dour soul to wish the islanders ill in Brazil. After all, who better to spread the gospel of our game than these divinely gifted athletes?

Far from ‘merely’ securing gold in the Sevens, we wouldn’t bet against the flying Fijians stealing the entire show. Usain Bolt has nothing on these guys!

Bums wanted

On an otherwise rosy weekend for English rugby, one stat stuck in the gullet: just 8,050 punters took in Saracens’ victory over Northampton at Allianz Park. It’s been reported that the Saints returned all but 600 of their 3,500 ticket allocation. There hasn’t been such a poorly attended quarter-final since 2001.

Meanwhile, around 5,000 empty seats were on display as Leicester thumped Stade Français at Welford Road, and the Ricoh Arena was around 9,000 bums short of a sell-out for the epic between Wasps and Exeter.

Okay, it was one of the busiest sporting weekends of the year so attentions were somewhat divided. But something seems amiss when knock-out European rugby fails to sell out.

So it’s over you: are you attending fewer games than you once did? If so, why? Cost of tickets and travel? The lure of the wall-to-wall television coverage? Better half in your ear?

Please share your views in the comments section below and let’s see if we can crack the case.

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson