Paul Wallace made a name for himself on the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa by overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle against all odds. The obstacle then was the humungous South African loosehead prop, Os du Randt. It was positioning and manoeuvring that saw him get the better of his opposite man against all odds on that tour – in the physical sense that is. At the moment, it is a different type of manoeuvring that is throwing up seemingly insurmountable obstacles to the future of the European game.
Political posturing and manoeuvring seems to have consigned the beloved Heineken Cup to the dustbin, and sadly a solution does not seem to be forthcoming. Wallace admits to be as stumped by the issue as everyone else – give him big Os du Randt any day.
“I really don’t know – we’re just going to have to wait and find out,” said the former Saracens and Leinster prop. “It’s something that we don’t know the inner workings of, but hopefully it will get itself sorted out.
“For something that’s so successful – the way it’s grown from how it was in ’96 to the way it is at the moment – I think there’s so much value in it, there’s so much in it for all the interested parties from every country, that common sense will hopefully prevail and everyone will come together for some compromise between the two; a format that everyone’s happy with.”
It is an optimistic standpoint that Wallace takes, and this perhaps reflects the feelings back in his home country. If from a financial point of view the Welsh have the most to lose from the prospect of no European rugby next season, then from a philosophical and emotional standpoint the Irish would be equally as gutted.
“In Ireland, we’ve had a relatively high level of success in the Heineken Cup,” he said. “It’s certainly grabbed the attention of the whole Irish public, and I guess the fact that rugby’s the only main professional team sport over here is important.”
Wallace says the Heineken Cup is more than just a rugby tournament – is it chance for players and fans to experience cultures that otherwise might remain alien to them.
“When I was playing, you usually just got to play teams and cultures that you knew. So my first game was down in Milan, and to go down there, to a whole different culture, was just something completely different.
“Even if it were just up to Scotland, or over to England, it was a completely different experience, and you had to adjust the way you played as well. So whatever the format is, we’ve got to keep the whole European thing going.”
As for this year’s tournament, it is set to be as competitive as ever. The last few seasons have been dominated by the wallet-wielding French clubs, but Wallace is tipping a certain Welsh region to go far, and continue the insatiable form shown by their several Lions over the summer in Australia.
“I think the Ospreys are looking very good,” he said. “They’ve got five Lions in their pack, lots of experience, and the confidence off the back of that series as well. In ’97 you had a lot of English guys that played and then went on to win a World Cup [10 of the 1997 Lions tour were in the victorious 2003 England squad], so I think the Ospreys could experience that as well by having so many core players coming back into form.”
Wallace’s dark horses do not end there, either, with a couple more teams boasting less than exemplary records in European competition catching his eye so far this season.
“Glasgow are another one – they’ll be very gritty,” he opined. “If you look at their group obviously Toulon will be favourites to come straight out of that, but for them to go up to Glasgow and get a result there – I think they’ll be pushed very close.
“If you’re looking at teams that maybe haven’t got the form that they might in this competition, then you’ve got to look at Glasgow, although Montpellier have started off very sharply, but on the road – that’s where they really need to prove themselves. They’re in the same group as Treviso, though, and French sides in Italy traditionally don’t do that well.”
As for the Irish provinces, Wallace’s old club Leinster have been drawn in the proverbial ‘pool of death’ alongside his fancied Ospreys.
“If you look at Leinster, they’re arguably still the strongest of the Irish sides (although it’s now quite tight with Ulster and Munster), but they’re in the toughest group,” he said. “Of all the English teams I think Northampton Saints are the ones that are really pushing forward, with the likes of Alex Corbisiero and George North coming in.
“Then you’ve got Castres, who won the French championship, and then the fourth team are the Ospreys – and the issue is for Leinster is that they’re a bit of a bogey team for them. On the back of all that it’s going to be a dogfight to get out, and I think the Ospreys might just do it.”
Great rivals Munster, who last week won bragging rights in Ireland after their 19-15 triumph over the men from Dublin, look to have an easier passage to the knockout stages.
“Munster will be happy with the group they’ve been given,” said Wallace. “Perpignan haven’t been as strong as they were a few seasons ago, but we all know what they’re like down at home. Of all the French sides they’ve got probably the most vocal stadium, so that will certainly be a very tough game.
“Gloucester are a good side at Kingsholm [speaking before the weekend loss to Exeter] but when they go on the road they still haven’t developed that consistency that you need to get out of your pool.
“The other thing about Munster, of course, is that they’re experts at getting those bonus points and doing what they have to do. If they were in Leinster’s group I think it might be a different case, but I think that group suits them and I’d back Munster to come out of it.”
Munster to progress, Leinster to crash out at the group stages for a second year in a row? However likely or unlikely that is, making predictions seems somewhat hollow when all anyone is hoping for right now is some sort of tournament where these Irish provinces can do battle with the best in Europe for the foreseeable future.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Sky Sports will broadcast over 50 hours of rugby union over one weekend beginning Thursday 10 October. Viewers can enjoy the start of the new 2013-14 European rugby season, ITM Cup, Currie Cup & IRB Sevens.
Title photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images