Love letters are not my forte. English, male, emotionally constipated; do I need to draw you a diagram? I suspect not. I did once write a tear-stained billet-doux to George Best when he got sent off at Chelsea but, in fairness, I was only seven. The Valentine card to Halle Berry when I was 47 was, I admit, less excusable but no less heartfelt. No matter; neither replied.
But offered a choice this very weekend between dinner a deux at Le Cafe de Paris in Monaco with Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson or a ticket in the arse-end of one and nine-pennies as Leicester grapple with Leinster, then – apologies to Halle – I’d be heading up the road from Welford like a rat up a drainpipe. And, let’s face it, when an evening of Ellis Genge and Tadhg Furlong rubbing ears beats sharing a moonlit verandah with La Berry and a ‘Filet de Maigre Parfume? au Ras-el-Hanout Fenouil et Riz Rouge de Camargue’, you know you’ve an incurable case of mal de coeur. The rugby earth has not anything to show more fair.
It’s the cacophonous colour of the Heineken Cup; the union of team and terrace, the assault on the senses that gives this competition its almost visceral appeal. Back in the day, Biarritz shifted a bundle of their knockout games to San Sebastian in which the rugby – frankly – came a poor second to a vivid and joyous festival of Basque nationhood, the one, glorious exception being the Ospreys scaring the pants off them in a 2010 quarter final. Twelve years on, and I’ve still no idea how they lost that game.
But this impassioned sense of identity is, invariably, a camaraderie of shared enthusiasm: like not only recognises like but shows a healthy, heartfelt respect for it too. Thus do we get Jack Nowell watching Exeter in Limerick wearing a large beer and a Munster shirt; or a cluster of Leicester supporters in ‘La Place de Jaude’ – speaking no French – trying to teach a clutch of chortling Clermont fans – speaking no English – how to pronounce ‘Abendenon’; or, magically, the moving and heartfelt response of Racing ’92 to the untimely passing of the wonderful Axel Foley, opening their homes to Munster fans when the postponed match was replayed in Paris four months later. As narrow as the tribalism can get, the width is never forgotten.
There is something epic about the last eight of the Heineken Cup – a quest, a crusade, a Holy Grail – although for some, certainly in France, that’s meant ‘Paradise Lost’
Above all, though, there is something epic about the last eight of the Heineken Cup – a quest, a crusade, a Holy Grail – although for some, certainly in France, that’s meant ‘Paradise Lost’; Stade Francais, Biarritz Olympique, Clermont Auvergne and, most recently, Racing ’92 have all found their infatuation with the Heineken Cup tantalisingly unrequited in the knock- out stages and if you judge the worth of a competition by the desolation of the losers, look no further. Affairs of the heart can be brutally unforgiving.
True, there’ve been times when the tournament’s administrators have, seemingly, looked hell-bent on turning wine into water; other occasions, too, when the closing chapters of the Heineken Cup have fallen clean down the rabbit hole. Blood capsules – and almost Johnsonian levels of dishonesty – in a quarter final; a preposterous, merciless penalty shoot out in a semi final and Guy Noves being marched out of Murrayfield by the Lothian and Borders Police as Toulouse were preparing to receive their just desserts after the 2005 final. Had Magritte painted the tableau – ‘Le Grand Malentendu’ – it could scarcely have looked any less surreal.
And, from a personal – and, I confess, somewhat petty – perspective, the rear end of the Heineken Cup is an incontrovertible contradiction to the dictum that to travel is better than to arrive. There is little in life that prepares you for the ‘Air France’ check-in desk at Orly airport or the ‘Ryanair’ flight to Dublin sat in the middle of Dierdre’s hen party or the moonlight flit from Llanelli to Leicester when your co-pilot – my lips are sealed – refuses to wear his seat- belt and the Japanese hire car spends the entire 188 miles chiming its furious disapproval. I can laugh now but, in truth, it’s still an effort. Thus, for a good reason, is comedy described as tragedy plus time.
Hey, good luck picking the winner in Marseilles. But, rest assured, what’ll separate the windscreens from the flies, inevitably, will be raw rugby intelligence.
As for this year’s knock-out stages, well, you could make a persuasive – make that a plausible – case for just about any of the last eight winning the thing. However, in the top half of the draw, Racing ’92 have not just a home quarter but, potentially, a home semi (against either La Rochelle or Montpellier) and, you’d think, must be odds on for the final; in the bottom half you have Leicester, Leinster, Munster and Toulouse (thirteen titles between them) all in with a meaningful shout, although given the winner of Leicester/Leinster gets the green grass of home in the semis, their – seismic – quarter final becomes even more pivotal.
Hey, good luck picking the winner in Marseilles. But, rest assured, what’ll separate the windscreens from the flies, inevitably, will be raw rugby intelligence. Look at the roll of honour. Stupid teams do not win this competition, which, when you think about it, is yet another reason to adore the last eight of the Heineken Cup. There is nothing like it anywhere in rugby.