Shoot-outs work so use them in Premiership
Sport Rugby Union
Before the Heineken Cup semi-final between Cardiff and Leicester in 2009, many rugby fans, myself included, wanted to see a game where the result was settled by the then new shoot-out format. After seeing the devastation of Martyn Williams, the Cardiff and Wales flanker, when his miss cost his side a place in the final, most people, myself included, said they never wanted to see it again. The shoot-out format was retained but modified and you can still argue that it is not the right way to decide who wins, but what would be better? You cannot ask players to slug away until the next score because who knows how long that might take and there is an added player-safety issue. What cannot be denied is that the extra time played on Saturday between Munster and Toulouse was nerve-shattering and the subsequent shoot-out was even more tense. The revised format dictates that each side pick three kickers and they take one penalty each from three positions on the 22-metre line, and then a second from the 10-metre line. This is better than having a shoot-out between the teams’ usual goal-kickers, as who knows how long that could last, and it spreads the responsibility. It also does not ask players such as Williams to do something they never do in games and take the blame if their team lose. Given the success of this format, why not introduce it for drawn Premiership games as a bonus-point decider? That it should be Toulouse’s Antoine Dupont who kicked what was, effectively, the winning penalty was almost inevitable, such is his ubiquity at present. He had already played an effective game and his temperament is made for this sort of highly stressful event. Whether internally he is not the ultra-calm person he appears does not matter. Outwardly, he radiates such a cool confidence that his teammates must be lifted each time they see him deal phlegmatically with the most fraught of situations. That Toulouse can successfully defend the Champions Cup must still be open to doubt. Munster could, perhaps should, have beaten them, bearing in mind they had a 10-point lead in the second half and Toulouse had a man in the bin. That said, Toulouse’s ability to win big games when not playing consistently has already seen off some good sides, and how good could they be if they do manage to hit their best for nearly a full game? Irresistibly good, is probably the answer. Toulouse will play Leinster in the semi-final after the Irish side effectively put the game beyond Leicester with a first-half performance of such momentum that the Tigers looked slightly shell-shocked. It is testament to the durability that Steve Borthwick, Leicester’s coach, has instilled this year that they managed to limit Leinster’s points-scoring and came back with a gutsy performance in the second half. Though the final score of 23-14 looks reasonably close, it really wasn’t. Once Tigers lost their usual reliability in the set-piece they could never mount the challenge that might have taken the tie. At present, even though they lead the Premiership, Leicester are a work in progress and need more creativity. When they could not rely on their driven line-outs as a try-scoring weapon, the game was up. Of all the things that could have gone wrong at crucial times, this was the one that Tigers could least afford and it was as unusual as it was frustrating for Leicester fans to see them butcher three near goal-line chances. There will be no English presence in the semi-finals after Sale failed to negotiate the unique challenge posed by Racing 92’s home ground, La Defense Arena. Sale’s unfussy style seemed particularly at odds with what at times seemed like a discotheque atmosphere of flamboyance and excess. The northern side were not in the mood for dancing or romancing, they just came to mash it up and climb into Racing. They tried hard to limit the creativity of players such as Gael Fickou and Teddy Thomas, and an opportunistic try by Manu Tuilagi at the end of the first half threatened to stop the music. In the end, Sale did not rock the boat and Racing fly-half Finn Russell’s individualism conjured the try that gave his side a cushion which they never relinquished. That is the way they like it at Racing and for their fans it was a case of May 2022 (Oh what a night). In one semi-final you have probably the two best teams in the competition so far – Leinster and Toulouse. The other looks to have two less strong teams in La Rochelle and Racing. As I said previously, Leinster look the most likely to lift the trophy, but the fact that three of the challengers are French just backs up the current vigour of the France national side.