Ah, what joys, the first weekend of the mighty Heineken Cup. How many sporting events are so closely identified with their sponsor that you can’t imagine them being called anything else? Heineken has backed this since the first European competition in 1995, which is when rugby went professional. You can’t imagine rugby without beer, though you have to in France, where they ban alcohol advertising at sporting events, so it’s called the H Cup over the Channel. Mark you, you can’t drink proper beer at the Stade de France anyway, just 0% rubbish. Or so it tastes.
Heineken is a Dutch lager, not a beer from a country noted for its rugby, like Kronenbourg, Guinness or London Pride. This must be the only connection the Dutch have with the sport. They are 47th in rugby’s world rankings, just above Sri Lanka.
Judging by the first weekend, the semi-finalists should be Toulon, Quins and Saracens, and possibly Leinster. As a much-put-upon Englishman, it was extremely cheering for me to see the Irish sides take some humbling. Munster lost to Racing Metro, and swaggering Leinster, European champions in three of the last four years, were taken all the way by plucky Exeter, who were simply astounding. Clermont Auvergne are in the group too, and the Frenchmen could make life very difficult for Leinster. Edinburgh were desperately poor against the Sarries, for whom I see De Kock, Brits, Smit, Du Plessis, Botha and Kruis all got a good run-out. There’s clearly a good flavour of Bloemfontein down Watford way.
Besides the good folk of South Africa, it’s Wigan’s rugby league side who drive Saracens. Their first three tries were scored by Joel Tomkins, brother of Sam, who is still at Wigan and has just been named League’s Man of Steel; Chris Ashton, once of Wigan, and Owen Farrell, son of Wigan titan Andy. And then there’s New Zealand League and Union legend Frano Botica, whose son Ben steered Quins to a big victory over Biarritz. Quite a League back story to the best two sides in England.
It was a great weekend of matches, too, for discarded England fly-halves, with Olly Barkley (once of Bath, now at Racing) and Charlie Hodgson at Saracens dominating their games, and Danny Cipriani turning it round for Sale when he came on as a substitute against Cardiff. And a certain Jonny Wilkinson, now with a film-star suntan, kicked glamour boys Toulon to an easy win. Whoever said England were short of great No. 10s?
And with all that, you might have missed an event of ground-shuddering importance: the All Black skipper Richie McCaw became the first player to win 100 Test matches. That’s right, a century of victories. It’s hard to imagine that ever being repeated in any sport played on a world stage. This milestone came when New Zealand beat a very physical Springboks in Soweto in the final match of the compelling southern hemisphere championship. McCaw, very much a man of steel in his own right, is now taking a few months off to spend more time with his glider, so we probably won’t see him in the autumn internationals. He’s said to be working up to the next World Cup, so heaven help the rest of us.
McCaw is not averse to letting match officials know where they might be wrong, and he’s a master of the dark arts too — here a little elbow where it hurts, there a hand in the ruck when the ref isn’t looking. But don’t take anything away from him. He’s fast and ineffably brave, and it’s said that every match for an aggressive open-side flanker like him is the equivalent of putting your body through a car crash. Full respect for the greatest centurion of all.