Stage set for all-English Heineken Cup finale
April 22, 2007
"Given that the Heineken Cup seems on the verge of being derailed by strictly parochial infighting, it might have been appropriate for this year's final to have a local derby feel..." Huw Richards reports
Given that the Heineken Cup seems on the verge of being derailed by strictly parochial infighting, it might have been appropriate for this year's final to have a local derby feel with Northampton and Leicester, separated by only 29 miles, as the contestants.
It would have been fitting too, for such a contest to have been set up by a semi-final at the third point of the historic Midland triangle - Coventry - which saw top-class rugby for the first time since the city club's relegation in 1988 as Saints attempted to beat Wasps.
For a while it looked distinctly possible. Saints began with rippling fluency, scored a magnificent third minute try through Bruce Reihana and were 13 points up in 16 minutes.
England coach Brian Ashton, whose selection difficulties for the first test against South Africa at the end of May had been compounded when Bath - which has most of the England players who do not play for Wasps and Leicester - reached the Challenge Cup final earlier in the afternoon, may possibly have breathed a little easier.
Wasps, though, did not get their name as the supreme turners-on of big match form by mistake. Nor did Saints get where they are in the Guinness Premiership by simple ill-fortune. For the remaining hour or so, those early 13 points had the feel of a target set by a cricket-style declaration.
There was little likelihood that Saints, who showed the ability to take the ball through multiple phases but rarely penetrated after that lively opening, would add to the score.
And Wasps exerted ever-mounting pressure, cutting the deficit to five points by the break and maintaining their ascendancy into the second half.
Saints, who have self-destructed with the same predictability as the taped message at the beginning of one of those 1970s thriller serials, did so again when flanker Ben Lewitt was sin-binned. Van Gisbergen cut the gap to two.
Saints did well for most of their 10 minutes of undermanning, running down the clock by going through the phases, but were finally broken as Lewitt was pacing the touchline awaiting his imminent return.
That the go-ahead try was scored by replacement James Haskell, who had replaced a tetchy and out of sorts Lawrence Dallaglio only a minute earlier, reflected another Wasps edge - the quality of their bench.
Two more tries, a second for Paul Sackey and one for another high-class benchwarmer Josh Lewsey, were probably a little unfair to Saints.
Northampton can, of course, still in theory qualify for next year's competition by getting relegated and joining the RFU's threatened armada of League One clubs. But certainly they'd rather not go there - and even if they do, it seems unlikely that Northampton's blunderbuss-diplomat owner Keith Barwell and the slippery folk at the RFU would accommodate each other.
If there was remotely that amount of trust between clubs and country, the problem would have been long solved anyway.
A point lead was erased on Saturday as well as Llanelli hit back from a poor start at Leicester to lead 17-16. The difference was that where Saints were shot, Tigers still had plenty left.
Outside-half Andy Goode, outstanding after his abysmal performance a week earlier in the EDF Energy Final, chipped through for Shane Jennings to score a superb opportunist try and Tigers were never in trouble again.
The victory completed a clean sweep of Leicester victories over the Welsh regions, but leaves the vexed question as to whether Guinness Premiership clubs retain their superiority over the Welsh regions unresolved.
Of course the Premiership's monopoly over the Heineken final is a strong argument, but this season's head to head results in the Heineken, Challenge Cup and EDF Energy Cup tell a slightly different story. Saturday's clash at the Walker was the 22nd and last meeting.
Wales lead 13-9 overall. Concealed within that though is Leicester's 5-0 record, the big-match victories over Ospreys and Llanelli in the last week following their Heineken double over Cardiff and an EDF group stage defeat of the Dragons.
England's remaining clubs went down by a resounding 13-4. Cross-border superiority remains almost as much in doubt as the precise composition of the team Brian Ashton will field in Bloemfontein on May 26th. Leicester's supremacy does not.