JACKSON COLUMN: European struggles continue for Welsh regions

Guinness PRO12 Editor

23 Oct 2012


Features, News

Wales have won more Grand Slams in the last seven years than England and France put together, a fact which makes their perennial failure to win the club version of the Six Nations all the stranger…..writes Peter Jackson.

The players who have achieved repeated international success keep failing to overcome English and French clubs.

After the opening two rounds of the two European club competitions, the four Welsh regions have played eight matches and lost all but one, the Ospreys having taken full home advantage against Treviso.

The other two Welsh teams – the Blues and the Scarlets – are to be found down among the Italians and the Scots without a win to their name. With so little margin for error, nobody can afford to lose their first two pool matches and retain any realistic hope of qualifying for the quarter-finals by winning the next four.

In the pre-regional days when they were plain Cardiff, long before someone copied Auckland and called them the Blues, the capital club contested the first European final, 17 years ago.

They lost in extra-time to Toulouse despite having had the great good fortune of avoiding the absent English and playing the final in their own backyard at the Arms Park.

Since then Cardiff have managed five quarter-finals and two semis, the last against Leicester at the Millennium Stadium where again they had home advantage, albeit a diluted one.

A terrific match ended up at 26-all after extra time only for Cardiff to fall foul of the tournament’s only penalty shoot-out when Jordan Crane, a goalkeeper at West Bromwich Albion in a previous life, landed the decisive kick.

The Scarlets knew how they felt. Twice they lost semi-finals to English opponents in heart-breaking circumstances, 31-28 to Northampton at the Madejski Stadium in 2000 and 13-12 to Leicester at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground two years later.

In the first they conceded a needless penalty for Paul Grayson to land a last-minute winner from long range and take the Saints through to the final where they confounded the odds and socked it to Munster. If anything, the Nottingham experience proved all the harder to take.

Llanelli, as they were known in the last year before regionalisation, took control of the tie and then decided to defend their lead rather than put the struggling Tigers out of their misery.

They were undone not just by their safety-first tactics but by surely the most freakish penalty goal winner in the history of the professional game.

Tim Stimpson’s goal from near halfway came off the far upright onto the cross-bar and then bounced over, enough to squeeze Leicester through 13-12.

The Tigers’ full-back had told the referee he was going for goal by the time Martin Johnson got across to within shouting distance, anxious to order Stimpson to stick the penalty into the corner.

Who knows, had the England captain got there in time the course of European history might have taken a very different path, enabling a Welsh team contesting the 2002 final against Munster on Welsh soil.

Like the Blues, the Scarlets appear to be as far away after drawing the shortest of short straws when placed in a pool which required them to start at the most formidable citadel in France followed by a home tie against the double European champions.

Clermont Auvergne, surely the best team by some distance not to have won Europe’s biggest prize, have been impregnable on their patch.

The Michelin Men have won 48 successive matches there since losing to Biarritz in November 2009, their two major setbacks last season having occurred elsewhere in France.

They lost the Top 14 semi-final against Toulon last June in Toulouse and the European Cup semi against Leinster a few weeks earlier in Bordeaux where Gordon D’Arcy’s famous tackle forced the fumble which led the TMO (Geoff Warren) to disallow the late try claimed by Wesley Fofana.

The knock-on effect during the last fortnight leaves the Scarlets in danger of an early knock-out. The same goes for the Blues, the only team to lose to Sale so far this season and that after Alex Cuthbert’s first-half hat-trick had given them a commanding lead. Their failure to cope with Toulon at the Arms Park on Sunday without as much as a losing bonus point puts the star-spangled French club in complete control of the pool.

The Ospreys could still make it to the quarter-finals despite losing the match of the round at Welford Road but only if they win the next one, at Toulouse on December 8. The good news for those in Ospreylia is that the French champions are not quite as unbeatable at home as Clermont.

The bad news is that no Welsh team has won there in the six years since the Scarlets came from 21 points behind to win a sensational match 41-34.

After the opening two rounds of the Amlin Cup, the Newport Dragons are hardly in a position to avert a complete Welsh wipe-out. Bayonne may have escaped from Rodney Parade last Saturday night by the skin of their teeth but the result, on top of the previous week’s defeat at Wasps, leaves the men of Gwent with one point from a maximum ten.

It is a fact that only six Welsh internationals know how it feels to conquer in Europe. Five did so with English clubs (Ieuan Evans, Richard Webster and Nathan Thomas for Bath in 1998, Allan Bateman for Northampton in 2000, Rob Howley for Wasps in 2004).

The sixth, Gareth Thomas, played for Toulouse when they beat Stade Francais at Murrayfield in 2005.

Maybe the Saracens’ prop Rhys Gill or, more probably, Clermont full-back Lee Byrne will add their names to the list come the final in Dublin next May. They have an infinitely better chance of doing so than any of their compatriots back home…