Not ‘end of the matter’ but French enthusiasm is fading

The game was in overtime and Castres lost six points.

After losing their home opener to Harlequins, they were set to suffer back-to-back Champions Cup defeats.

A lackluster Munster, having taken the lead in a terrible encounter, defended a scrum just inside the opposition half.

They appeared to have returned the ball but Castres retained possession and would have one last chance to attack and get their campaign firmly back on track.

Enter Ben Urdapilleta.

The veteran halfback snatched the ball from the bottom of the ruck and kicked it dead. Game over.

‘Play, play’, it was not.

Enough. The castrated half Ben Urdapilleta ends the match against Munster

“Whore !” someone shouted in an Irish accent as the Munster players looked around in puzzlement and relief.

Castres, who had sent a second chain, did not want to be there.

In fact, their chairman, following the games between the UK and France, called their trip to Limerick “absurd”.

It’s fair to say that there are mixed emotions in France about this competition which, again this year, has been ravaged by cancellations and postponements linked to Covid-19.

For every burst of color on the canvas of the Heineken Cup by Toulouse and Toulon and Biarritz and Clermont and Racing 92 over the last quarter century, there have been equal measure of teams that have thrown themselves into matches of hen with all the enthusiasm of a vandal doing community service.

And it’s not just pool games that seem to bring out this carefree attitude.

Trailing by just eight points against Leinster with half an hour remaining in the 2019 semi-finals, then-four-time winners Toulouse pulled captain Jerome Kaino out of action.

The former All Black went to the post-match press conference after the defeat with little injury or regret in his demeanor.

Ugo Mola’s men won the Brennas Shield two months later.

It may seem harsh to go after Stade Toulousain who, regardless of some other Top14 formations, have generally given themselves body and soul to the Champions Cup, but on this occasion their objective was the Shield , a competition that dates back to 1892.

Their victory that season was their first Top14 success in seven years.

Toulouse is the defending champion

The history of Toulouse with the competition, the crazy and passionate love of Toulon with the tournament between 2013 and 2015, the color of Clermont and the newcomers La Rochelle and the race for the European title of Racing 92 show that the event, taken seriously, is a much more pleasant experience.

But ultimately money talks.

The Top14 is worth €110m for the clubs and with the threat of relegation also in the mix, wiser and more practical heads prevail.

The French league is a brutal and relentless affair and some clubs just don’t have the depth strength to fight on two fronts. Philippe Saint-André, boss of Leinster’s opponents tomorrow, falls into this category.

The latest major shake-up to the tournament meant that French rugby audiences lost most of their terrestrial TV access to the Champions Cup, lowering visibility.

“The public have lost touch with the European Cup, in a way,” Sud Ouest sports editor Arnaud David told RTÉ Sport.

Add to that the chaos caused by Covid this year and last and as Bernard Jackman told the RTÉ Rugby podcast this week: “The French and the English were very lukewarm about this year’s competition. The way they managed the second round added to the discontent.”

Clermont, three-time runners-up beaten, lost their opening match against Ulster at home.

Their second round match against Sale was one of the draws to be declared 0-0 with two pool points for each team.

“I joined this club eight years ago,” stalwart Camille Lopez said on Wednesday.

“ASM had an incredible European Cup culture. It was really something very important and it is very important.

“I won’t hide it from you, the European Cup as it is this year, frankly, it’s much less motivating.

“We had just lost at home against Ulster, we had taken a point, we had prepared the week to go and win there because it was important for our continuation in this competition.

“So, [Sale] will say they got screwed because they lost two points at home.

“I don’t know if we can say we are winners because what we were going for is a win for them to still be competitive in this European Cup.

“In the end, neither is advantageous. I think it’s a waste [désordre], clearly. I do not know what to say. Frankly, this competition, I don’t know if it rhymes with anything.”

Christophe Urios, head coach of Bordeaux-Bègles, says: “This competition has no meaning anymore… it’s rubbish.”

The big hits from the big hitters just keep coming.

Former French striker Sébastien Chabal [above], an influential rugby media pundit in the country, told Canal+ last week “the European Cup means nothing…it’s a disaster…what will the champions be worth?”

However, it can be pointed out that Canal+ owns the rights to the Top14 and has its own programming problems with the postponed match of this competition.

There was good news on Thursday when French authorities changed protocols which meant teams from the UK could travel without undergoing a 48-hour quarantine upon arrival, so those matches were lit green.

Another English boycott would have been the last thing European Professional Club Rugby needed and very few believe there are no more twists this season.

Leinster, quadruple winners, will not worry too much about the French state of mind with Montpellier, currently fourth in the Top14, visitors to the RDS tomorrow (1 p.m.).

But that does not mean that they do not know which way the wind is blowing and that they have estimated that

“It was interesting to listen to Philippe Saint-André talk about his team, Montpellier at Exeter,” said Leo Cullen.

“He said he was under pressure to manage some of his players. It’s almost like they prioritize the Top 14 over Europe.

“Anyone who knows us here would know that we think differently.

“We would go full steam ahead.”

It’s a slightly different perspective when there are bits of muscle bursting into you.

“Every time I’ve played against the French opposition I know they were up for it,” prop Andrew Porter told RTÉ Sport this week.

“Given our outing last year against La Rochelle, we knew they were up for it.

“I wouldn’t agree that [French sides] compare everything that happens in the Top14 because every time we play against them it’s always a daunting battle and you have to have a cool head and give your best on that day.”

Leinster assistant manager Robin McBryde, whose side have now gone five weeks without a game, said: “It changes depending on which club you are at.

“Some clubs, if they go through a tough time in the Top 14, focus more on survival, instead of doing something in Europe.

“Montpellier will take this game seriously, there’s no doubt about it. They’re going high.

“They have too many quality players and if you go to a competition that you still have a chance of winning, you’ll sell yourself there a lot more.”

This is probably not the end of the French affair but the EPCR will pray that this round goes off without a hitch.

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