Following the epic Top 14 semi final against Clermont, Toulon's Ross Skeate gives us a report-back on what it was like to come up second in such an incredibly close game of rugby. The Challenge Cup final against Cardiff Blues is next though.
We've come so far, only to stumble at the final hurdle! What a magic season, only to run out of fairy dust when we needed it most. How close was it, running into extra time and nearly coming away with the victory via Gabi Lovobalvu's try attempt at the death? How amazing would it have been to come from behind fighting a 10-point deficit? How amazing would it be to be preparing for a Top 14 final?
Sadly it was not to be though, and admittedly it was our own errors that let us down on the day. Some people may highlight the refereeing decisions or a few turns of luck that went against us (that freakish drop kick of Brock James comes to mind). But for me it was our own mistakes, our own lack of execution of our first phase that let us down and a few decision-making errors. But mainly our first phase problems.
To win championships, a team needs to have certain facets to their game. Somewhat bland to be sure but extremely important. Winning things like the World Cup for example, needs a completely watertight first phase, backed up by an excellent defence and kicking game. Some of these things are not what we excelled at during our semi clash.
That’s why sides such as the Boks and the Bulls have done so well in recent times, namely because of a powerful pack guaranteeing their backline quality ball on the front foot and the boot of the flyhalves taking control of the game afterwards.
Even the successful 2003 World Cup Winning English team had these very qualities in spades. Often it is the side that plays the least but controls the game the best through their clinical execution that translates into success, even though they do cop a little criticism in the process. If you win though, who honestly cares?
Fighting back to 22-all at fulltime was a huge achievement in the context of the game. Jonny’s penalty to get us there was amazing and just the reason that we signed him. Extra time though was gut-wrenching and we just couldn’t take our chance at the end.
But although it was our own mistakes, it was also our fiery ambition that nearly meant the game was ours despite the mistakes we made. Had we been bested soundly by a better side, I would have more reservations about the experience. Had we been completely out of our depth and been easily beaten by the Clermont side, which has not only been together for a number of years but made it to numerous semi-finals together, I would be scratching my head now.
But happily that was not the case, our mistakes and our failings on the day are the type that can be rectified and polished with enough experience together and enough maturity as a team. And because we are so fresh to each other, these things will follow quicker than I expect.
Certainly we didn't play semi-final rugby, or at least not the type of semi-final rugby that catapults teams into finals. But we did fight tooth and nail for every inch on that field. I think Clermont can count themselves lucky in some ways.
There was a noticeable sigh of relief breathed by all there players after the encounter, but they can also feel that they deserved the victory in the way that they used their experience and attention to details to do what they needed to. At the end of the day they are the ones heading to the final.
I am proud of the season we have put together up until this point but it’s not over yet with the Final of the Challenge Cup this Sunday against the Cardiff Blues.
But what we have achieved as a team after assembling as a unit for our first season, is so encouraging for what lies ahead for this group! The bond that the team shows off the field, meals together and other social high-jinks the norm, is so evident on it. It showed up at every turn as we fought the deficit and tackled and played for one another and glory.
So onwards and upwards and we’ve been given another chance as towards greater things we strive. Every player in our squad is focused on winning this weekend's final, using what lessons we learnt last weekend to our benefit.
After getting that close last week – we’re craving a little silverware on the Var.
See you all soon.
_______________________________________________________________________________Having played for Western Province, the Stormers, the Emerging Springboks, the Barbarians, and Toulon in the Top 14, Ross has gathered a wealth of experience both on and off the pitch. Step inside his world by visiting his excellent website, RossSkeate.com, and following him on Twitter @RossSkeate.