John Eales in the Sydney Morning Herald

Blue everywhere but hail, too, the emerald green
John Eales
May 21, 2012

The Heineken Cup is one of the great events on the world rugby calendar.

It was a blue weekend in Europe. Not the blue of recession or
depression for a change, but rather the blue of Chelsea and the blue
of Leinster, European champions both.

Fortuitously I was there, in quite different environments, and
couldn’t help feeling a little jealous as a result.

Europe has some natural advantages over equivalent tournaments in the
southern hemisphere, distance being one, diversity another, and – dare
I say it – passion a third (although AFL fans could rival most).
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Mind you, there was scant diversity among the tightly-packed patrons
in the Chelsea pub from where I watched their penalty shootout with
Bayern Munich.

In fact, as genuine neutrals, our rugby trio was the only diversion
for ardent Chelsea supporters, but being drenched in showers of
warmish lager after Didier Drogba’s winning penalty kick quickly
nurtured our strongest chameleon instincts – it would have been rude
not to go along for the ride.

Yet that was just the end of my journey. I had been to Twickenham, the
home of English rugby, to witness Leinster’s 42-14 victory in the
Heineken Cup over their fellow Irishmen Ulster.

Twickers was not at its most genteel on Saturday and the bipartisan
support played your emotions like a game of tennis.

I arrived believing I was the net, but found myself lurching
erratically between new-found friends and loyalties.

It was some show, the extremes of which we do not quite experience in
Super Rugby.

That’s not to say southern hemisphere supporters are not as
passionate, but we just express ourselves differently, very
differently. Perhaps it’s because divides run deep in the north.

Geography might position them closely in the atlas but war, religion
and various other forms of angst have driven them apart.

Ulster and Leinster are a good example. While perhaps not as relevant
these days, this battle has variously been flavoured Protestant v
Catholic; North v South; Loyalist v Republican. It diminishes some of
Australia’s rivalries to little more than “he said, she said”.

And perhaps because of this heritage, team loyalty runs deep. So much
so that, despite the clear agony of their imminent defeat, the Ulster
supporters never stopped singing.

All that changed was their intent as, come the last, their voices took
on the proportions of warm blankets to wrap around their boys and
comfort their fall; for though they failed, they had done so with
valour.

It had little in common with an emptying Sydney Football Stadium, with
Waratah supporters rushing to their cars spraying invective along the
way.

And of course the Leinster supporters were in clover, as they so
verdantly put it, creating new legends as third-time champions.

The Heineken Cup final has become one of the most compelling rugby
events on the world calendar.

With 24 teams in contention, it represents the best club sides from
each of the Six Nations.

In its 17 years, English and Irish teams have now won six
championships apiece and French teams have won the tournament five
times (including Toulouse, who have the record with four).

But although the spoils have been shared across three nations,
significantly the Irish have won five of the past seven tournaments –
a wonderful achievement for a nation with hardly 20 per cent of the
senior playing numbers of their Gallic and Anglo-Saxon rivals.

Their run of victories highlights Australia’s and South Africa’s
paucity of success in Super Rugby, although we have to deal with New
Zealand rugby teams, who are consistently the best in the world.

The Irish derive much of their strength from condensing their talent,
rather than spreading it thinly.

Though they have four provinces, it is Leinster, Ulster and Munster
that harbour most of their internationals, including the likes of
Brian O’Driscoll, man of the match Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Sexton, and
Rory Best.

Australian provincial teams might fare better if our talent was
divided by three rather than five, but with more than twice the number
of senior male players than Ireland, we should continue to think
long-term and national.

Yet analysis can detract from celebration and this weekend, amid the
gloom of impending economic doom, a few parts of Europe rediscovered
joy. In football it was all Chelsea and in rugby it was Eire abu,
Ireland forever.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-union/union-news/blue-everywhere-but-hail-too-the-emerald-green-20120520-1yywt.html#ixzz1vSzxhAqF