IIn this strange and fractured sports season, we should probably be thankful that there was a Champions Cup final. As Toulouse lifted its fifth record European trophy in the evening sky, it was possible to momentarily overlook all the Covid 28-0 winter walks and logistical travel nightmares that had threatened to leave organizers with nowhere to go.
Also from a sports narrative perspective, it was moving to see France’s new shining star, Antoine Dupont, share a joyous trophy lift with 38-year-old former All Black Jerome Kaino, a two-time World Cup winner and now champion of the World Cup. Europe. Kaino’s career ends this summer and his collection of medals now ranks among the best.
Having been crowned, unlikely as it may seem, as the first Frenchman to be voted European Player of the Year, Dupont may be one of the few modernists capable of climbing similar heights. However, as Toulouse refocuses on its quest for another Top 14 title, the compelling fact that Saturday’s staccato final raised more questions than it answered cannot be avoided.
Because if ever there was an excellent example of the precarious tightrope on which top-level rugby operates, this was it. The big finals are all about winning, but if a Martian had seen his first union match, he would have been confused. What do Earthlings call this sport when, for extended periods, players just stand by drinking from plastic water bottles? Why does the referee keep drawing imaginary rectangles in the sky and referring endless decisions “up” when he is closer to the action than anyone else? And you don’t have a home to go to?
This NFL-isation of rugby is natural to some degree, but when Luke Pearce appears on screen more often than world-class players like Dupont or Cheslin Kolbe, the game has a genuine problem. In addition to the games that last less than two hours, if more time had been necessary, this contest would have lasted almost as long as the Eurovision Song Contest, tomorrow’s fan will want a sport with less complicated laws and much less bragging.
A safer show is also vital, which is why Levani Botia saw red for his high challenge in Maxime Médard. But how come several other debatable collisions failed to produce a card? How many players receiving long-term in-game treatment does it take for the alarms to sound? Would fewer outsized replacements or a collective maximum team weight mitigate some of the risk? And what exactly are the priorities of the game when umpires can repeatedly search for the base of an invisible ball under a pile of impenetrable bodies but cannot request a replay of a Toulouse player cynically joining the last ruck of a major final? from a blatantly offside position?
Oval-shaped perfection, of course, tends to be unattainable, but what if a “captain’s challenge” had been available in those final seconds, as is currently being tested at the Rainbow Cup? La Rochelle would have had a penalty and would have kicked him into the corner; As Ronan O’Gara observed, the statistics suggest they may have driven to try, with a winning conversion to come.
On the other hand, as mentioned above, how long would such a chain of events have taken to develop? And would the occasion really have been favored by the other ongoing legal process, which allows any team whose player has been sent off to revert to 15 men after 20 minutes? Botia’s law, as it may come to be known, would surely have made life in Toulouse more difficult.
So will, potentially, the imminent introduction of South African provincial teams to the tournament. Next month, if Covid complications allow, there is a chance that they will be officially admitted to next season’s Challenge Cup, with a chance to participate in the Champions Cup the following year.
It remains to be seen if a European final between the Bulls and Stormers in Murrayfield will grab the uncommitted by the lapels, but on the other hand, it may be a way to keep the big French teams from dominating the proceedings for the foreseeable future.
Toulouse may have been relatively pedestrianized for long periods on Saturday, but well-funded French clubs like themselves, La Rochelle, Racing 92, Bordeaux-Bègles, Clermont Auvergne and Montpellier, 18-17 winners of Friday’s Challenge Cup final by the night against Leicester, see European success as a priority. Aside from Leinster, Saracens, Exeter and Bristol, how many British and Irish teams have the roster depth or budget to withstand them? More change, as they do not say in Johannesburg.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism