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Blue everywhere but hail, too, the emerald green

Date

John Eales

The Heineken Cup is one of the great events on the world rugby calendar.

The Heineken Cup is one of the great events on the world rugby calendar. Photo: Reuters

It was a blue weekend in Europe. Not the blue of recession or depression for a change, but rather the blue of Chelsea and the blue of Leinster, European champions both.

Fortuitously I was there, in quite different environments, and couldn't help feeling a little jealous as a result.

Europe has some natural advantages over equivalent tournaments in the southern hemisphere, distance being one, diversity another, and – dare I say it – passion a third (although AFL fans could rival most).

Mind you, there was scant diversity among the tightly-packed patrons in the Chelsea pub from where I watched their penalty shootout with Bayern Munich.

In fact, as genuine neutrals, our rugby trio was the only diversion for ardent Chelsea supporters, but being drenched in showers of warmish lager after Didier Drogba's winning penalty kick quickly nurtured our strongest chameleon instincts – it would have been rude not to go along for the ride.

Yet that was just the end of my journey. I had been to Twickenham, the home of English rugby, to witness Leinster's 42-14 victory in the Heineken Cup over their fellow Irishmen Ulster.

Twickers was not at its most genteel on Saturday and the bipartisan support played your emotions like a game of tennis.

I arrived believing I was the net, but found myself lurching erratically between new-found friends and loyalties.

It was some show, the extremes of which we do not quite experience in Super Rugby.

That's not to say southern hemisphere supporters are not as passionate, but we just express ourselves differently, very differently. Perhaps it's because divides run deep in the north.

Geography might position them closely in the atlas but war, religion and various other forms of angst have driven them apart.

Ulster and Leinster are a good example. While perhaps not as relevant these days, this battle has variously been flavoured Protestant v Catholic; North v South; Loyalist v Republican. It diminishes some of Australia's rivalries to little more than “he said, she said”.

And perhaps because of this heritage, team loyalty runs deep. So much so that, despite the clear agony of their imminent defeat, the Ulster supporters never stopped singing.

All that changed was their intent as, come the last, their voices took on the proportions of warm blankets to wrap around their boys and comfort their fall; for though they failed, they had done so with valour.

It had little in common with an emptying Sydney Football Stadium, with Waratah supporters rushing to their cars spraying invective along the way.

And of course the Leinster supporters were in clover, as they so verdantly put it, creating new legends as third-time champions.

The Heineken Cup final has become one of the most compelling rugby events on the world calendar.

With 24 teams in contention, it represents the best club sides from each of the Six Nations.

In its 17 years, English and Irish teams have now won six championships apiece and French teams have won the tournament five times (including Toulouse, who have the record with four).

But although the spoils have been shared across three nations, significantly the Irish have won five of the past seven tournaments – a wonderful achievement for a nation with hardly 20 per cent of the senior playing numbers of their Gallic and Anglo-Saxon rivals.

Their run of victories highlights Australia's and South Africa's paucity of success in Super Rugby, although we have to deal with New Zealand rugby teams, who are consistently the best in the world.

The Irish derive much of their strength from condensing their talent, rather than spreading it thinly.

Though they have four provinces, it is Leinster, Ulster and Munster that harbour most of their internationals, including the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, man of the match Sean O'Brien, Jonathan Sexton, and Rory Best.

Australian provincial teams might fare better if our talent was divided by three rather than five, but with more than twice the number of senior male players than Ireland, we should continue to think long-term and national.

Yet analysis can detract from celebration and this weekend, amid the gloom of impending economic doom, a few parts of Europe rediscovered joy. In football it was all Chelsea and in rugby it was Eire abu, Ireland forever.

15 comments so far

  • While I have the utmost respect for you Mr Eales , making a sweeping statement like "the paucity of Australian/South African Super Rugby success" is a bit rich since the official count is 10 to NZ teams(Crusaders and Blues) and 3 each to SA(the Bulls) and Aus(Brumbies and Reds)at a ratio of 10-6 and the majority of the SA/AUS wins have been in the last 5 years .

    Commenter
    Matthew Skellett
    Location
    Petersham
    Date and time
    May 21, 2012, 8:49AM
    • pau•ci•ty
      noun
      1.
      smallness of quantity; scarcity; scantiness: a country with a paucity of resources.

      2.
      smallness or insufficiency of number; fewness.

      Commenter
      piru
      Location
      Perth via Rakaia
      Date and time
      May 21, 2012, 11:41AM
    • One thing is for certain is that there's certainly no 'paucity' of chips on shoulders or defensive knee jerk reactions from AB fans

      Commenter
      murph
      Location
      Blackheath
      Date and time
      May 23, 2012, 7:28PM
  • Agree with your remarks about fans.

    As a tahs fan I am long suffering - due to both the teams underperformances over many years, but also due to the atrocious lack of support from the fans after loses.

    As you point out, the Irish, nor other rugby fans, would be so petulant. Support means helping in the bad times not just the good. I am quite sure this factor helped kurtley on his way down to the rebels, and look at them now ...

    Commenter
    FastEddy
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 21, 2012, 8:55AM
    • @matthew. I don't think John meant that you should combine the 2 countries. The correct ratio is 10:3:3 which is lopsided compared to 6:6:5. Just as John stated.

      Commenter
      lowkey
      Date and time
      May 21, 2012, 9:07AM
      • Actually is it not 6,3,3,0 (Wales) 0 (Scotland) who coincidentally are touring in a few weeks? My money is on Wales to be 2-1 winners (aided by loss of O'Connor) and a total flogging of Scotland.....anything less will be seen as a disaster after they lost all 6 nation games and 3 (?) before that

        Commenter
        heading off
        Location
        Guatavita
        Date and time
        May 21, 2012, 9:15PM
    • Its true - Waratah supporters are the worst... not just in rugby... in any any code of sport. How do you change a culture like that?

      Commenter
      okeefe78
      Date and time
      May 21, 2012, 9:10AM
      • John has raised two interesting points here. 1.success of the four provinces of Ireland.
        Reasons for Irish success
        A.prior to 1998 provincial system wasn't good but they have such a division and passion which in each province which still survives the pro era where tribalism has seemingly died.
        B.in 1998 garland and philipp Browne made every attempt to lure 25 players back to Ireland from the English premiership claiming that to be selected for ireland they had to play in Ireland.
        C. This coincided with a great kidney coached u/19 side including stinger Horgan odriscoll Ogara etc.plus good foreigners.

        2. Aust to condense from 5 to 3 teams.
        This is so true. We can only supply 90 quality players in this country.always have always will.we have 60 players in squads who are not up to it.rebels brumbies and force will now protect them from falling but at the expense of no team rising so it's going to be hard for our teams to win super rugby.a solution maybe to sign a joint venture for rebels/pacific islands and for force/African rugby..Namibia,zim or develop black s.a players. The reality is that w.a,Vic have produced no more then 10 quality players over the last 30 yrs. and even the brumbies at there top only produced a max of 10 in any one season which leaves nsw/ qld to contribute 140 per yr which only about 45/35-80 are quality.im with Kearns and eales on this one

        Commenter
        Logger
        Date and time
        May 21, 2012, 10:54AM
        • I have recently moved to Sydney from Dublin and duly bought a 'Tahs season ticket. However, i am uncertain whether i will be taking up the option of renewing it next year, not because of the team's lacklustre performances, but that of the fans. Coming from Ireland where the crowds are passionate (although i disagree with the assertion of religious divides playing a part, the WHOLE of Ulster seems to have gotten behind their team), sing songs, chant players names and serve as a 16th man, the Sydney crowd seems to be totally detached from "their" team. The 80-odd thousand supporters in Twickenham on Saturday reinforced what a great occasion and spectacle rugby union can be and the empty stadia of the Southern Hemisphere can only look on in admiration.

          Commenter
          Meisty
          Date and time
          May 21, 2012, 1:02PM
          • @ Meisty - how right you are! It's embarrassing how lame the support is from the fans at the SFS. Polite conversations going on all around the stadium while the match is in progress - why do people bother attending?
            I've said this before, the Sydney crowd needs to 'fire up' and get a bit of mongrel back into their supporting / cheering.
            That goes especially for you members!

            Commenter
            World in Union
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            May 21, 2012, 2:57PM

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