18 May, 15:44
It's down to the wire now for the five contenders who have been shortlisted for the ultimate individual accolade in northern hemisphere rugby, ERC European Player of the Year 2013.
Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks fly-half and coach who is now in charge at Northampton, is one of the most articulate and intelligent men to grace the English Premiership scene for years. In his short time at Franklin's Gardens, he has returned his team to something like the form they showed in 2000 when they landed the Heineken Cup and came close to pulling off a domestic double.
The burgeoning career of hooker Steve Thompson owes as much to him as it does to England manager Clive Woodward, and Smith's ability to teach an old dog new tricks has rejuvenated the play of Matt Dawson, Tom Smith and, spectacularly, fly-half Paul Grayson, who had been on the verge of packing the game in. The New Zealander has hardly put a foot out of place since arriving in the northern hemisphere and has rightly received lavish praise from all sides.
And such is his appreciation of the Heineken Cup that, Smith was quoted as saying that with a bit of tinkering the Heineken Cup could overtake the Super 12 as the pre-eminent non-international tournament in the world.
Smith did concede that the Super 12 has certain advantages - 'It lasts only ten weeks and the players come into it on fresh legs' - but he is convinced that the European competition is already the world's best club tournament. Leicester are a club side from the East Midlands, but it is unlikely they would be overrun by many of the Super 12 teams? Munster are a provincial side and would have nothing to fear Down Under. Ditto Leinster, Gloucester, Llanelli (at least at Stradey Park), not to mention Toulouse, Stade Francais and Castres.
Arguably, the potential superiority of the Heineken Cup over the Super 12 was rammed home in the 2002 autumn internationals. Australia and New Zealand had disappointing tours although the new, young All Blacks had plenty of positives to take home with them. But the South Africans were a disgrace even before taking their off-the-ball conduct into account.
After being drubbed in the Super 12 and Tri-Nations, they fell to the same fate on their three-Test autumn tour. Thus the northern-hemisphere Test sides are reaping the benefits of the toughness of the two pan-European club tournaments. The gap in class between county and international cricket is so wide only the exceptional can bridge it, but in rugby the players are given the chance to test themselves against the best at club level. A young flanker like Lewis Moody, who emerged during Leicester's almost unchallenged domestic hegemony, had his mettle tested in the furnaces of Pau and Perpignan before he bestrode the international stage.
When England completed their southern-hemisphere Grand Slam in November, Moosy was one of six Leicester players who had captured the limelight. When Ireland trumped Australia 18-9 at Lansdowne Road, nine men from Leinster started. Factor in Munster and Ulster, and the Irish have much to look forward to.
Ten years ago, the words 'European competition' conjured images of a game of touch rugby on a close-season tour, sunburn and too much local hospitality. Now it is the benchmark by which clubs are measured. It is no longer enough to dominate at home. Leicester are a great club because they successfully defended the Heineken Cup not because they went more than 50 league games undefeated at Welford Road.
Likewise, Munster are a great side for their European exploits which one day, for the sake of everyone's sanity, must surely end in fulfillment. This state of affairs did not come about by accident. The tournament was initiated by the Five Nations' commitee who wanted to provide another level of competition across Europe and a stepping stone from club to international rugby.
If Leicester were to complete the hat-trick by winning this season's final at Lansdowne Road in May, it would rank as perhaps the outstanding achievement in the history of club rugby, northern or southern hemisphere. But the overall value of this premier club competition to rugby north of the Equator is measurable by the number of hard-nosed, talented, match-winning players who are now breaking into Europe's national sides. The Heineken Cup has indeed refreshed the parts of European rugby which other competitions cannot reach.
This is an excerpt from an article written by Adam Hathaway for Rugby Europe, ERC's official magazine, to find out subscription information, click here...