It’s hard to love Saracens rugby club — their centre is called Bosch, a word that also describes their bulldozing style of play — but you have to admire the demolition job they did on Clermont Auvergne in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup. The flamboyant French side, free-runners to a man, had 68 per cent of possession, 64 per cent of territory and yet were tackled into impotence. Clermont limped off the Twickenham turf, stuffed 46–6.
The English club play Toulon, the defending champions, in the final in Cardiff on 24 May and again I will be supporting the French team, not just because this will be the last match of Jonny Wilkinson’s career. He is England’s distant past, though, and England’s future rests on some of these young Saracens, such as Owen Farrell, Mako and Billy Vunipola or Alex Goode.
Chris Ashton may also have an England future, too, after responding to being dropped for the Six Nations in the best possible way — by breaking the Heineken Cup scoring record. Two tries in the semi–final took him to 11 in this year’s tournament. It was good to see that he has discovered a mite of humility, too, not celebrating with his idiotic ‘swallow dive’ that had neutrals begging to see the ball fly out of his grasp before he could ground it.
When he scored 15 tries in his first 17 internationals, Ashton was England’s hero, but his reputation lost some of its lustre in the disastrous World Cup campaign in New Zealand. He scored only three times in his next 20 appearances for England. It was time to try new blood. Jack Nowell and Jonny May did well in the Six Nations, but at 27 Ashton is young enough to regain his place.
Once upon a time, wings like Ashton used to stand shivering on the touchline, waiting for the ball to come to them. Some went an entire season without needing to wash their shorts. Not any more. A modern wing has to go looking for work, something that used to be Ashton’s strength. In his heyday in 2010–11, you would always find him on the shoulder of a team-mate who had made a half-break, ready to take the scoring pass.
For Saracens of late, we have seen that work rate again. His first try against Clermont was scored on the opposite wing to where he started and he also created good tries for others. In rediscovering how to play within a team, Ashton may have given his individual ambitions a huge boost.
As a dyed-in-the-wool Plastic Scouser — I worked in Liverpool in the 1970s and headed for the Kop whenever possible — the rip-snorting surge for the title by Liverpool this season has been little short of miraculous. After all, we are basically an eighth-place team with a Champions League attack. But Chelsea’s squashing of Liverpool’s flashy bits, and their parking of four Thomas Heatherwick double deckers in front of the Chelsea penalty area, six if you include Mikel and Matic from a deep midfield, and seven once Gary Cahill came on in the second half, was a thing of real beauty and exceptional skill. Like anyone else, I can’t stand Chelsea — even people who like Chelsea can’t stand them — but they were brilliant on Sunday. Liverpool were never in it. José Mourinho is miles ahead of other managers, and Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers lost a little of his shine by having a whinge. Dry your eyes and do your time, I say.
Talking of football, I was glad to see that David Moyes has beat a retreat to Florida with his wife for a much-needed break. It’s always the best policy: just ask The Archers’ Kirsty Miller, who was dumped by her fiancé Tom Archer on her wedding day. She headed off to Costa Rica, with flatmate Rachel rather than perfidious Tom. When the going gets tough, just bugger off. You know it makes sense.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
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