Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Travesty, A Tragedy, and an Abominable Injustice

Clermont Agonistes

Unlike soccer where it's difficult to score, the better team normally win rugby matches.  There are of course exceptions (Ireland against Scotland this year), but this general rule applies.  It's mainly to do with territorial domination usually leading to tries or to penalties against the defending team.  But at Lansdowne Road last Saturday there was one of the most egregiously unjust results in the history of the sport - as bad as that infamous occasion in 1959 when Don Clarke kicked six penalties for New Zealand against the Lions who lost 17-18, despite scoring four tries (old scoring values).

This was the Roundheads beating the Cavaliers. Darkness triumphing over light.  Evil over good. Toulon had a specific and pragmatic game plan: defend like demons, kick long for field position, and when in Clermont's half hope for penalties, Wilkinson will never miss.  It worked perfectly, with a little help from the referee who kept penalising the attacking team.  Clermont had a much simpler plan:  play attractive open rugby and tries will come.  And come they did, two beauties early in the second half, after they had dominated the first but couldn't beat Toulon's blanket defence.  At 15-6 they looked home and hosed - their 20,000 supporters were in carnival mood.  The dour couple of thousand from Toulon were silent.  Then Wilkinson chipped away a little at the lead with a penalty.  They were only six ahead - vulnerable to a converted try.  And then disaster.  The Clermont out-half Brock James gets a ball on his twenty-two and instead of hoofing it down field he attempts to run it.  A ruck develops and Toulon hack it out and into the hands of their winger who runs in unopposed for a try in the corner (accompanied by some cheap triumphalism).  Inevitably Wilkinson kicks the very difficult conversion and suddenly the team that never came close to scoring a try before that are ahead of the team that played all the rugby and dominated territory and possession.  But surely there's enough time left for Clermont to respond.  But that fatal flaw in their DNA that has resulted in an historic track record of losing finals asserts itself again.   They freeze.  A few pointless assaults, no redemption from the referee, a desperate drop goal attempt and it's all over.

The stadium is distraught - stunned supporters in their now poignantly bright colours (blue and gold) are devastated.  On the way out I'm approached by a large tearful man bedecked from head to toe in Clermont favours - including a bubble-perm wig.  He is bereft - babbling on about Brock James and the referee.  He clearly needs consoling so a lady in our party gives him a big hug and we go home - not able to muster the enthusiasm for a pint.

Toulon are a team of replicants, huge muscled up creatures designed for the modern game.  Their strategy is that of the wrecking ball.  We had great seats at pitch-side so we were privy to the brute physicality of the encounter.  You fear for the game when this dread pragmatism prevails.