‘Heineken refreshes…’ & ‘Suicide Sunday’

23 05 2011

We all know that ‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach…’ and Saturday’s European Rugby Cup final, sponsored by the international brewing giant, was anything but flat, with Leinster and Northampton Saints serving up a 5* showpiece  at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium – probably the best (apologies to Carlsberg!) in the competition’s  sixteen year history.    

Of one thing, however, there was no doubt, 2011 European Champions, Leinster, pulled off the most dramatically comprehensive second half comeback ever.    

Leinster, who picked up the trophy for the second time in three years, went into the game as clear favourites but were left visibly reeling by a first half performance from ‘Saints’ in which they lost the forward battle, were second best at the breakdown and continually stretched in defence.

With fly half Stephen Myler dictating the pattern and pace of the game, Ben Foden rampaging forward at will and Dylan Hartley’s forward pack shunting the Irishmen all around the park, Northampton accumulated an impressive 22-6 lead – leaving the pitch after the first period with one hand, seemingly, on the trophy and the Heineken on ice!  

If only to have been a fly on the Leinster dressing room wall during the half-time break!

Apparently fly half Jonathan Sexton set the tone, suggesting Leinster’s predicament should be seen as an opportunity to create a piece of rugby history that would live long in the memory (or words ‘ta dat’ effect!)    

Whatever, Leinster emerged from the tunnel like a blue tornado and within a whirlwind seventeen second half minutes the ‘Saints’ had been blown away.

‘Man of the Match’ Jonathan Sexton had not only ‘talked the talk’  but ‘walked the walk’, grasping the game by the scruff of the neck, chalking up two converted tries and a penalty which took his team into a lead that, thereafter, they never looked like relinquishing.

It was by no means a one man show, but an outstanding team performance, with all the big names stepping up to the plate when it was most needed. Flanker Sean O’Brien, hooker Richardt Strauss and full back Isa Nacewa upped the tempo all around the pitch and Northampton just couldn’t live with them.   

And then there was Brian O’Driscoll. Back from injury and desperate to take his place in the final, the iconic Irish centre had looked anything but ‘world-class’ in the first half, short of pace and light weight in the tackle. During the second 40 minutes he was back to his imperious best, imposing himself all over pitch.

It was a performance that firmly placed the Irish provincial side amongst the all-time great European champions, Toulouse, Leicester, Munster and Wasps.                 

Breathtakingly unforgettable it was a rugby spectacle that refreshed the parts…  

Who in their right mind would be a Premiership football manager?

‘Sky Sports’ tagged yesterday ‘Suicide Sunday’. On the last day of a 38 match season, five teams were still embroiled in the battle for Premiership survival with two of them destined to join the already relegated West Ham in the Championship next year.  

Prior to kick off it was impossible to call. For some considerable time there had been talk  of the three Ws making the drop, West Ham, Wigan & Wolves, but in recent weeks Roberto Martinez and Mick McCarthy had somehow coaxed results from their respective squads which suggested they just might claw their way to survival.

Conversely, the 3 Bs, Blackburn, Birmingham and Blackpool, having loitered for much of the season in comparative mid-table security, had recently gone into free-fall, spiralling uncontrollably towards the trap-door at just the wrong time.      

It was to be the players, supporters and managers of Blackpool and Birmingham who were to end the day in despair.

For Ian Holloway’s low-cost Blackpool side the Tangerine dream is over. Those towering early season performances weren’t enough to keep their heads above the relegation quick-sands. Typically they went down, not with a whimper but a bang, at the Old Trafford stronghold of Manchester United.

With an hour gone Blackpool had the audacity to lead the champions 2-1 but it was never going to last. They were unable to cling on for a white knuckle ride through the final thirty minutes, and the red tide swept their sand castle away well before the final whistle. In the end it was a case of Blackpool donkeys trying to compete with Sir Alex’s thoroughbreds.

The 4-2 score-line was so typical of Blackpool’s roller-coaster season. How many times have they lost, after leading for two-thirds or more of the game?  Their inability to close out games inevitably caught up with them. For the neutral it’s been a lot of fun but in all honesty they are headed back where they belong.    

The final day blues also well and truly descended on Birmingham City, beaten 2-1 at high-flying Spurs. After pulling off that fantastic Carling Cup Final victory against the Gunners, back in March, I wrote of how the St Andrews gypsy curse had been well and truly lifted!

What do I know? The harsh reality is that, in the end, that hard-earned glory, with its promise of European football to come next season, cost them dearly. Caught up in the afterglow of a long-awaited success they momentarily took their eye off the ball and fell into a losing habit they couldn’t shake off. Alex McLeish’s men have only won two league games since that February triumph, so relegation has hardly come out of the blue!  

From a personal point of view, yesterday’s results undoubtedly make next season’s race for the Championship promotion spots all the more competitive, with Birmingham, Blackpool and West Ham joining Swansea or Reading, Cardiff, Leeds, Burnley, Ipswich, Middlesbrough, Derby, Crystal Palace, Southampton – all capable of making life difficult for the ‘Tricky Trees’!   

It’s a formidable line up. I hope Forest’s acquisitions committee are taking note and planning a significant summer spend!   

And finally, spare a thought for Carlo Ancelotti, unceremoniously fired in a corridor at Goodison Park after Chelsea’s final day 1-0 defeat.  

After landing the League and Cup ‘double’ last year, he paid the ultimate prize for second season ‘failure’ – after all Chelsea only managed 2nd place in the Premiership and reached the quarter-final of the Champions League!

Okay he will get a £6 million pay-off but a manager of his proven quality, and by all accounts a thoroughly decent man, has been treated in an unforgivably, shabby and undignified manner (as was Avram Grant, by West Ham, last week)

Chelsea, desperately seeking their Champions League ‘holy grail’ are now searching for their seventh manager in eight seasons, which just goes to show, money can’t guarantee success.

The humble ‘Tricky Trees’ might be in the second tier but they can still sport two European Champions stars on their shirt – eat your hearts out Roman, Arsene, Mancini & ‘Arry’…         

      

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