Loose Pass: Pep Guardiola comparison, English rugby needing oxygen and why now for two Welsh greats?

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with missing titles, missing cash and missing reasons…

Poor returns

Loose Pass was not the first to draw comparisons between the quality and drama of the Champions Cup final and that of the second British & Irish Lions Test in 2009, even if the runs of the two games were slightly different.

We might, perhaps, be the first to draw a comparison between this Leinster team’s current run and that of some of Pep Guardiola’s soccer teams over the past decade or so.

Really? Well, yes. A recent soccer column opined that now the Premiership was won, Mr. Guardiola might be inclined to rest and rotate his starters ahead of their two upcoming finals to maintain freshness but potentially at the cost of some rhythm; indeed that were he to do so, you could either expect his team to start slower than expected in the finals or to blow opponents away early. A glance down the annals also reveals that he has often been perceived to have over-thought selections and rotations when it comes to key matches, often with negative results.

Upon reading that, Loose Pass could not help thinking about the decision to rest a number of front-line players from the Leinster side in a couple of matches over the past month or so, but especially against Munster in last week’s United Rugby Championship semi-final.

A decision made, ostensibly, to ensure total focus on the final from the selected matchday cadre, but as the game went on, and despite the lightning start, it looked more and more as though Leinster’s rhythm was out. The gap left for La Rochelle’s second try was vast. Discipline was poor. The pack, full of Irish internationals who are deservedly World Cup favourites this year, was ultimately bullied towards the end. Decision-making at crucial moments went awry. Cool heads over-heated.

Over-focussed on one game? Lost rhythm? Under-cooked? Or simply beaten by an astonishing performance from a high-quality side with a better in-game intelligence? The latter is perfectly possible, none of what has been written above is to do down La Rochelle’s achievement. But the Leinster way, which has resulted in a squad of whose depth most can only dream, now has slipped up at final hurdles or semi-final hurdles, for two years in a row. It may have been a calculated move, but in hindsight, the most precise science of all, it looks as though Leinster’s gamble on resting players last week was similar to a chap in a casino being slightly up with a good strategy and then suddenly deciding to plonk the house on red.

Even a Munster fan admitted to Loose Pass on Saturday, “I was torn. You never actively want Leinster to win, but it would have been good for Ireland.” As has been written often here, club form is rarely a barometer of national form, but with the bulk of Ireland’s Grand Slam winners undone on their home turf less than four months out from the World Cup, club form does at least possibly point at a way for Ireland’s opposition to get at them. The better news there is that there is not a side in international rugby possessing the mix of power and size that La Rochelle has put together.

The size of the rebuild

The latest misfortune to face English rugby came on Thursday, with confirmation that Wasps could not find even the cash to get a Championship organisation together.

But even if London Irish survive – the signs are not good – a rewatch of the quality of Saturday’s Champions Cup final should have brought home the fact that the fare on offer was a number of degrees better than that on offer in the Premiership currently.

La Rochelle’s pockets are deep and they enjoy a municipal stadium which the town is probably gladder and gladder that it largely finances, enabling the harbour town to focus the contents of those deep pockets on the playing and coaching staff. And if the Leinster way is still suffering hiccups, the bigger picture is that it has created a squad that only the very best could ever hope to compete with.

What is left of English club rugby has jumped up several notches in terms of entertainment this season, but it feels more and more insubstantial when you look at the yawning chasm between a Premiership match and Saturday’s epic. English rugby is in serious need of oxygen.

Why now?

The question hangs in the air over every bar counter, every valley, every office table in Wales: why now? Why, four months out from the World Cup are two of Wales’ most celebrated players calling it quits on their careers when surely the World Cup should have been their swansong?

There are arguments that Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric simply decided they could not drag themselves through the dirge of Warren Gatland’s brutal training camps, with both having spent significant time on the sidelines this season.

There are also arguments that, decorated though they are much-celebrated, neither is a guaranteed starter any more and that they’d rather bow out now than be travelling reserves.

But with a major WRU sponsor pulling out on Monday and insisting that the funding strategy is too flawed for it to continue, it might also well be that the problems plaguing the WRU are by no means over and that the pair wanted nothing more to do with it.

Watch that space. The calls for an Anglo-Welsh league have already begun…

READ MORE: Champions Cup Team of the Season: La Rochelle dominate our picks with seven players included