Bath v Brive – The Rematch

Bath v Brive

April 1 2017

 

Back in the early days of the Heineken Cup it wasn’t entirely clear if all this cross-border competition was good for the game. France was the frontier town, and nowhere was more dangerous or more gilded than Brive, smack in the middle of the Limousin. This stand-alone town had already stunned the rugby world by humbling Leicester at Cardiff Arms Park in the final, only the second, of 1997.

 

For the third Heineken Cup campaign, the reigning champions from Brive were pooled together with Pontypridd, and the continuation of the two teams own feud. The rugby between the two clubs was brilliant, with the European champions winning 32-21 in a quite breathtaking game. Breathtaking, brilliant and brutal. The quality of the play was matched only by the quality of the fighting, a running brawl that extended way beyond the 80 minutes. After the rugby encounter in the Parc Muncipal, the teams met again, over the counter of the Bar Toulzac in the middle of Brive.

The Pontypridd players went into the Brive team’s drinking den to confront certain individuals, and in particular scrum half Philippe Carbonneau.Chairs, bottles and fists flew. By a wicked quirk of fate the two then met in what was called in those days a quarter-final play-off. Brive won at home 25-20, went on to win superbly at Loftus Road against Wasps in the quarter-final proper, and then beat Toulouse in Toulouse in the semi-final, on try count, after being tied 22-all after extra time.

 

Meanwhile, Bath, almost unnoticed, were in the final too, having beaten both Cardiff and Pau at the Recreation Ground. They were coached by Andy Robinson, had Jeremy Guscott and Ieuan Evans in the backs. They were considered a mature team with the best days behind them.

They were not expected to beat Brive in the 1998 final, especially not at the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux. And yet they did win, 19-18, with Jonathan Callard scoring all their points with a try, conversion and four penalties.

 

The reason for this trip down rugby’s memory lane is that the two teams met on Saturday at the Recreation Ground in a quarter –final of the Challenge Cup competition. 1998 had marked a European peak for both teams.

Bath’s best performance in the Heineken Cup was a semi-final appearance in 2005/06. They have been more successful in the Challenge Cup, reaching four finals since 2002/03, with one success, against Worcester in 2007.

Brive’s history since 1998 has been a rocky one, and includes two relegations to the second division, one in 2000 for financial mismanagement. Their only notable European performance was a Challenge Cup semi-final appearance in 2005.

 

So it is not surprising that Saturday’s match at the Recreation Ground should be the first between the two clubs for almost 20 years. Bath were on a rocky run in the Premiership with three consecutive defeats. With a lunch-time kick-off and the sun shining, there was a springtime feel to the match. Brive contributed a good deal, but were undone by some wretched defending. Bath stopped the rot with a highly entertaining victory 34-20, to set up a semi-final clash away to another French side, Stade Francais.

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

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Will Europe suffer World Cup hangover?

Amongst all the coverage of the forthcoming World Cup it would have been easy to miss the announcement last week of the fixtures for next season’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.
Because of the World Cup the competition doesn’t start until mid-November, but there are some exciting matches in prospect. There is the inevitable “Group of Death”, Pool 5, involving a previous Heineken Cup winning quartet of Leinster, Wasps, Toulon and Bath.

But there must be a question mark over how big the World Cup hangover will be, and which of the European Champions Cup contenders will be hit hardest. The answer to this will play a huge part in determining which of Toulon’s rivals will stand the best chance of prising their hands off the trophy.
Saracens are easily the Premiership’s leading lights after reaching a final and two semi-finals in the last three years. They start their hoped-for route to Lyon with a tie against fading French giants Toulouse at Allianz Park.

Their rugby director Mark McCall reflected on the competition. “ The different slant to this season is that the World Cup final will be played two weeks before the first game, and we don’t know who will be in the final – but if England were to get into the final we don’t know how our players will be coming back into the club with Toulouse just two weeks away.”

The reality is that if England, France, Ireland, Wales or Scotland reach the World Cup last four, or even the quarter finals, the sizeable international contingents of clubs like Saracens, Bath, Toulouse and Leinster could be severely compromised. Injuries, fatigue, as well as factors like loss of form all come into the post-World Cup equation.

It suggests that clubs with strong squads which are not heavily hit by international calls could thrive in the coming campaign, because, ironically, the revised format introduced a year ago, means any side that does not hit the ground running puts its quarter-final prospects in danger.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Do Sky have an Irish love-in?

The European finals last weekend gave us a great opportunity to compare BT Sports’ coverage of rugby with that of Sky with both broadcasters covering the two finals. It’s a matter of personal preference of course , but I just find BT’s coverage more to my taste, and a bit less pompous.
Premiership fans have long been irritated by Sky’s Irish love-in, and that was evident again in their coverage of the Toulon v Leinster semi-final. There seemed to be no pretense of anything close to impartiality, and if we’d cut to Myles Harrison and Stuart Barnes in Leinster shirts I wouldn’t have been surprised! I have a lot of time for Stuart Barnes as a writer but as a broadcaster I wish he would take a leaf out of the late Ritchie Benaud playbook – less is more!
It’s hard to get numbers for Sky Sports subscribers in the UK and Ireland, but it seems likely that it’s roughly 20:1. However, having lost the rights to broadcast the premiership, it looks like there a distinctly pro-Irish flavour to their rugby output, and the rest of us will simply have to lump it – or press the mute button!

We have just had an all-French and all-British European final. Of course we need neutral referees when clubs from different countries are competing ,but when it’s a one-country clash ,might it not make for a better spectacle to have a home ref? Let’s face it, Pro 12,Top14 and Premiership matches are all ref’d in slightly differently ways, and the players are used to that.
I would have thought that a native French speaker would have been a better choice for the Champions final in particular. Nigel Owens is a superb referee, but how many of the players at Twickenham understood his English comments in a broad Welsh accent?

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Is the Challenge Cup worth the hassle?

A distinct hint of déjà vu swirled around last weekend’s European semi-finals. A decade ago three of the four last eight ties in the then Heineken Cup were hosted by French clubs. Of those French sides, all reached the semi-finals and two of them – Toulouse and Stade Francais – contested the final.

Now dig a little deeper into the Euro pyramid. Ten years ago there were five Top 14 sides in the European Challenge Cup last eight; this year there were none. As far as the French are concerned, European club rugby’s second-tier competition is no longer worth the hassle.

They are not alone. What should be the UEFA Cup or Europa League of rugby feels more akin to the League Cup. For all sorts of reasons the Challenge Cup is presently in danger of losing its raison d’être. The winner is not even guaranteed to qualify for the Champions Cup next season (something football’s equivalent will offer this season’s winners), having to make do instead with a play-off spot.
The principle of three second-placed pool sides dropping down from the elite competition for the knockout phase has also been quietly dropped since the main tournament was reduced from 24 teams to 20.

Next season will be a different story – but only because it is a World Cup year. The Challenge Cup winners will qualify for the following season’s Champions Cup but in 2017/18 there will be a permanent switch back to the play-off system.
If say Gloucester win this year’s Challenge Cup to outflank the seventh-placed Premiership finisher, they will only play in the elite event should they beat the seventh-placed Pro 12 side , followed by the seventh-placed Top 14 side on May 30.
By then everyone involved will be on their knees…..

It all threatens to spawn a competition that is a waste of everyone’s time and effort. The whole driving force behind the new European set-up was to reward merit. Surely it says more about a team’s qualities if they battle their way through a series of sudden-death matches to win a worthwhile trophy, rather than simply rewarding them for mid-table mediocrity.
If there has to be a play-off for 20th place, perhaps it should be between the seventh-placed Pro12 team and the top-ranked Italian club, if the latter has finished outside the top six. That would retain the principle of Italian involvement in the Champions Cup – but only absolutely guarantee a place if they earn it on the field.

Automatic Champions Cup qualification would similarly reinvigorate the meandering Challenge Cup and make it worth cherishing again. A seriously competitive Challenge Cup – incorporating a worthwhile prize for the Champions – should not be beyond the wit of European rugby’s administrators.
These should be boom times for European club rugby – and that is before any “knock-on” effects from the World Cup. There were 84,068 at Wembley a few weeks ago, and, despite London Welsh’s struggles, there is reportedly a 5% rise in Premiership attendances this season. This all suggests spectator interest in the sport is growing – yet directors of mid-table squads across Europe are all being forced to prioritise the domestic front.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Who cares about the Challenge Cup – Not the French!

One of the stated goals of the new European rugby tournaments was an increase in how competitive the new competitions would be. If that has been achieved in the Champions Cup the same cannot be said of its baby sister, the Challenge Cup.

While 25,600 were watching a full-blooded Munster v Clermont affair in Round 3, a paltry 4,000 went to see Brive (who average over 12,000 in the Top 14) take on Oyonnax.

To be fair to EPCR, not all blame can be laid at their door. The Amlin Challenge Cup, its previous incarnation, was never particularly loved by supporters. But crucially, there was at least the carrot of a place in the Heineken Cup for the winner. With that carrot taken away in favour of an end-of-season play-off system that merely adds another two weeks of competitive rugby to an already cluttered calendar, what reason does any club really have to prioritise the Challenge Cup over its domestic league?

If there is any hope of the Challenge Cup being a worthwhile tournament, it must hold qualification for its big brother, the Champions Cup. Without it, this season it has become less competitive, not more. Until that happens it will remain a damp squib of a tournament, unloved by fans, media, and to be brutally honest, clubs alike.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk