Yesterday afternoon at 4.50pm I joined the family in front of the television in order to watch the European Champions Cup Final between the holders Leinster and Saracens at St James’ Park, Newcastle (kick-off 5.00pm).
The venue – Newcastle United’s iconic football stadium (almost sold out to its capacity 52,000) – had been chosen by the RFU as part of its campaign to develop rugby union interest in the North-East on the back of Newcastle Falcons finishing in fourth position (and the play offs) in the Premiership last season, a slightly ironic situation given that they have just been relegated back to the Championship.
Rusters can read today’s newspaper reports to gain their understanding of the blow-by-blow details of the game which ended in a 20-10 victory for Saracens who thereby won their third European Cup Final, an English club record.
All I wished to register is that it was one of the most intense and exciting rugby matches between two elite evenly-matched sides that I have witnessed in a decade. It was compelling fare, a feisty no-holds-barred contest played at a frightening pace.
Many of the collisions, particularly those in and around the breakdown, were bone-shattering, relentless and uncompromising.
Either team could have won – the score was 10-10 at half-time – as they slugged it out toe-to-toe from the first whistle to the last.
Never mind any first-time locals drawn to the spectacle by the novelty of having a major rugby match take place in the North-East, even those commentating and long-time rugby aficianados listening or viewing, would have been – and indeed were, as I was – reduced to a state of awe by the sheer harum-scarum physicality of it all.
It is this.
That at the elite level of any sport or game, in which over the course of history the adage “the end justifies the means” – in terms of achieving the desired end result (victory) – has often attracted “not losing”, or the deployment of negative tactics, as a first priority from which then to build the foundations of triumph, to some degree the times may be a-changing.
In the modern age of scientifically-driven fitness, conditioning, nutritional and tactical preparation and planning, somehow it seems to me that there is currently a growing fashion amongst teams and their individual participants to deliberately ‘park’ any (what the boxing fraternity used during the heyday of Muhammad Ali used to call ‘rope-a-dope’) strategies and instead simply get out in the middle of the arena and simply “go for it!”.
But when I look back at yesterday’s rugby union European Champions Cup Final – and the recent exploits of Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs in the round ball game – there are few more exciting things for any fan than to see two top teams playing each other, both at full-tilt all the way.