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Sometimes it’s worth remembering how quickly things can change, in club rugby and also in politics. This time a year ago, for example, the fourth harlequins were still seen as long-range shots to win the Gallagher. Premiershiponly 10,000 were able to watch the final due to Covid-19 and the United Rugby Championship, containing the top sides of South Africa, had yet to be launched.
Who could have predicted that Quins, in particular, would be crowned champions when Bristol took the lead 28-0. in their semifinals? Or even that Exeter Chiefs, 31-26 up entering the last furlong, would be pee fine? Or that neither Bristol nor Exeter would make the top six of this current season, with a once powerful Bath finishing a stone-cold bottom?
It’s almost as if rugby union is trying to reflect the changing climate: more extreme episodes than in the day, sudden departures from traditional orthodoxy, a new normal coming true in real time. That is why this year’s knockout stages, across Europe, are not as easy to call as they could be otherwise.
Most available logic, for example, points to a Leicester v Saracens Premiership final and has been doing so for months. The Tigers assembled the most intransigent pack in the league while Saracens, from Owen Farrell down, still have a steel conviction in their own ability. The sturdy edge that pushed them to the top two after nine incessant months should, rightly, be enough to get rid of them. Northampton and Quins on Saturday, respectively.
But wait. Look at the statistics and they shout something else: that knockout rugby is very different. In the past 11 years the side finishing top of the regular season table has gone on to win the title only three times. Leicester it may feel like they have already climbed a significant mountain but in many ways the hardest part is yet to come.
To make matters worse their semi-final opponents, Northampton, are on a significant list. Of their last seven games of the season they have won six and averaged just 40 points in a game. They topped the league’s test chart with 99 in 24 games. Yes, Leicester have beaten them at home and away, but on a harder, faster route it is quite impossible for the Saints’ clever backs – few sides move the ball sweeter – and probing half-defenders can cause a few flirtations.
It’s the same with Quins, whose ability to evoke rehearsals from anywhere on the pitch was once again gloriously evident, albeit in defeat, at Exeter last weekend. They also lost twice to Saracens in the league this season but on no occasion have Marcus Smith or Owen Farrell been involved. The duel between the two likely midfielders during this summer’s English tour to Australia will be another fascinating subplot at StoneX Stadium.
There’s a recurring theme here: good, tough, tough home teams against dangerous attacking opponents with nothing to lose. Deprive Quins and Saints of the ball and the results will be almost inevitable: give them a chance in a loose, furious encounter and anything could happen. But there is also an element of teams capable – or otherwise – of finding another gear at the end of a long, arduous campaign. Not so much Darwinist survival of the fittest as of the most recent. The team that can continue to believe the longest will generally win.
That, in the end, is what characterized La Rochelle’s European title victory over Leinster in Marseille – collectively they decided earlier in the week that, this time, victory would be theirs. No matter the form book or Leinster’s genealogy or the background, that was their moment. And so it happened. Nor is it a question that past disappointments have helped to sharpen their hunger.
In that respect you like Leicester, Saracens and Leinster will all burst out to prove a pointless point this weekend. Even if their respective contests finally relax, it would be unwise to underestimate how much the three teams have been stung lately. Leicester, having been turned away from Leinster at home in Europe, absolutely refuse to tolerate a repeat. Saracens are still on their post-payroll redemption mission and look sadly determined to reach their first final in three years. And Leinster, having been rejected in the end by La Rochelle, are too good a side not to return home to the Bulls in the URC halves.
So what to expect this weekend? Will a gung-ho risk-taking or a real grit win the day? Emotion or pragmatism? None of it, actually. What will bring the day is the quality that so often defines great sporting events: pure blood faith. Not knowing when you’re beaten, never give up, refusing to settle for a second best. A decent tactical game plan, yes, but powered by an unwavering collective desire. Last year that was Quins ’difference but they, and Saints, may soon find that, even in a rapidly changing world, certain imperatives remain the same.