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Spring is in the air, and European rugby is about to steal the sporting show

I'VE never quite figured out what T S Eliot was on about when he came up with his line about April being the cruellest month, but it's pretty obvious that the dyspeptic old wordsmith was no fan of sport.

Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson, right, lifts the Heineken Cup last season. Picture: Getty Images
Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson, right, lifts the Heineken Cup last season. Picture: Getty Images

For, as the rest of us know and appreciate, the first full month of spring is a time of unparalleled bounty and kindness.

On the one hand, you have the obsessions of winter coming nicely to the boil, with a glut of finals and championship showdowns as various tournaments and competitions reach their nail-biting conclusions. On the other, you have the harbingers of warmer days ahead: the first thwack of willow on leather across an English summer lawn; the first glimpses of the visual feast that is the Masters at Augusta, that annual blast of southern comfort in all its aching dogwood-and-azaleas blooming glory.

And then, of course, there are the glorious one-offs, starting this weekend with the Saturday double of the Grand National at Aintree and the Boat Race on the Thames.

The former has a glorious habit of throwing up heartwarmingly redemptive narratives - former crack-addict jockey triumphs on nags once destined to be dog food, and so on - while the latter is unquestionably one of the great institutions of British life, our annual opportunity to gather round the parlour radio in the hope of hearing the two most exquisite words in the entire lexicon of sports reporting: Double sinking.

Actually, it's even better than that, for Boat Race boats don't actually sink. Instead, they are swamped a few critical inches beneath the waves, leaving their crews languishing up to their oxters in the choppy waters of the river, objects of ridicule and ignominy that only a heart of stone could fail to skip a joyous beat at seeing.

And as most of them will subsequently go on to pursue city careers that involve casting the rest of us into the cold, brown stuff, it is only right that we take the time to enjoy their discomfort.

Until recently, of course, rugby was a mere spectator at the vernal smorgasbord of sporting activity. Only a few years ago, the rugby season pretty much petered out at the conclusion of what was then the Five Nations Championship, its last few weeks taken up with a handful of sevens tournaments and, well, not very much else. All that changed with the introduction of meaningful club competitions in the 1970s and 1980s, but it took the arrival of European competition in the 1990s to blast the sport into the stratosphere.

Which is where it is heading this coming weekend as the continent's elite sides brace themselves for the winner-takes-all showdowns of the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. This is rugby at its rawest, at its death-or-glory, compelling best. And the line-up this year is probably the finest it has ever been.

What would you not give to be a spectator in the febrile cauldron of the Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday afternoon as the titans of Clermont Auvergne and Leicester go head to head once more?

Clermont, under soon-to-be Scotland coach Vern Cotter, have clocked up a staggering run of 74 consecutive home wins and are short-odds favourites to stretch that sequence to 75, but Leicester have European pedigree, a wily coach in the squat shape of Richard Cockerill and a certain stroppiness in these situations. Show them an apple cart and they'll be first in line to upset it.

Or what of Toulon versus Leinster in the raucous surroundings of the Stade Felix Mayol the following day? The two most recent winners have much to play for in a contest overshadowed by poignancy, as Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll, the two finest European players of the modern era, prepare to slip into retirement.

Thunderous stuff, a game to define the age, but only marginally more attractive than the other two ties: Ulster against Saracens at Ravenhill and Munster against Toulouse at Thomond Park. What odds against the three Irish sides making it through to the semis?

So, a wonderful weekend is in store. European rugby puts on its finery, puts on a show and everyone watches with bated breath. Yet until only a couple of weeks ago, the very future of the Heineken Cup - or whatever it is to be called next season - was in doubt. Pettiness, posturing and private interests took it to the very edge of extinction before common sense, and some shedloads of cash from Sky and BT Sport, prevailed.

As yet, the new settlement for top-level European club competitions has not been signed. Apparently, Italian officials are unhappy about a couple of details in the participation agreement, but these are not thought to be deal-breakers. Pens will be put to paper very soon.

But here's a suggestion. Why not slip in a clause that obliges all parties to act like grown-ups over the lifetime of the new arrangement? Moreover, let's also have one that imposes harsh penalties on those clubs, Unions and individuals who indulge in silly brinksmanship towards the end of the lifetime of the contract. Let's finally cement the place of rugby in this glorious sporting spring.

AND ANOTHER THING

The presence of Carlin Isles, supposedly the fastest man in world rugby, certainly added a few to the gate at Mansfield Park on Saturday as Hawick hosted Ayr, with Isles on the wing, in what would otherwise have been an unremarkable and meaningless end to the RBS Premiership season.

Contrary to the expectations of the bunnet-wearing worthies of Hawick, the diminutive Isles put in an impressively solid shift, happy to throw his slight frame into tackles and rucks. Jim Renwick spoke well of his workrate, and there is no higher praise than that. But while the 24-year-old American enhanced his status as an all-round rugby player, his reputation as a finisher lost something of its lustre when, after a dazzling break, he dropped the ball over the line.

"No try," said the referee. Yet at the moment the ball fell from Isles' hand, he was running across the pitch, parallel to the dead-ball line, so it did not go forward. And as he subsequently applied downward pressure, as the law demands, then the try should have stood.

So he was hard done by? Strictly speaking, yes. But in what was, remarkably, his first-ever full 15-a-side game, Isles was taught a valuable lesson. You don't ever give a referee room for doubt.

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