In the nine seasons since Leinster’s second European cup victory, a 33-22 triumph inspired by a certain young prospect by the name of Jonathan Sexton, over Northampton in 2010-11, there have been just two other clubs who have won Europe’s premier club rugby trophy.
Saracens, Leinster and Toulon have made European rugby their own this last decade. Such an elite stranglehold on resources, talent and success is unhealthy, and there are signs it may be coming to an end. Such dominance is bad for the game, bad for marketing, bad for the TV deals – ultimately, upsets are exciting
One is always wary to label French sides the ‘plucky underdogs’ but in this years competition they have three excellent outfits, Toulouse, Racing and Clermont, all capable of going all the way. Toulouse have experienced much joy in Europe, winning the Heineken Cup a joint record four times, whereas the other two have been perennial bridesmaids of late – that could soon change.
It is the young, exciting squad of Toulouse that looks best placed. French clubs are notoriously poor away from home, and so their 25-20 victory over Gloucester at Kingsholm was a real statement of intent and motivation.
Likewise, whilst Saracens headed to Paris in all kinds of bother, Racing put them to the sword, in a hugely impressive 30-10 win inspired by some Finn Russell magic. Likewise, at the Marcel Michelin, Quins were obliterated by Clermont in an ominous fifty point thrashing. A win away in Ulster this weekend and Clermont deserve to be taken seriously.
The first weekend was one of joy in Ireland too. All four provinces won, with injury ravaged Connacht’s shock defeat of Montpellier, a side stacked full of expensive internationals, the highlight. Munster won well too, and, as ever, look best placed to challenge Leinster in the Irish ranks.
For the Premiership clubs, the picture was noticeably more sorry. Only Exeter and Northampton recorded victories, no real surprise, given that it they should be fighting it out, along with Gloucester, for the league title this year in Saracens’ absence. Whether their evident quality can be transferred onto a European stage, a leap that Exeter have failed to make thus far, remains to be seen.
Fundamentally though, the competition needs new blood like Exeter and La Rochelle to perform. The same clubs have ruled the roost in European club rugby for too long. For a cup competition, in any sport, to remain vital and invigorating for fans, it needs underdogs turning over the established players, it needs shocks, surprises and late scores.
What the Champions Cup doesn’t need, then, is the Leinster or Saracens efficiency machines rolling their way to another title.
Written by Joe Ronan.