Champions Cup: What we learned from the final pool games
Leinster v Munster final possibilities, Pro14 dazzles Top 14 and English clubs struggle
Leinster’s Jordi Murphy, James Lowe and Josh van der Flier applaud their fans after the Champions Cup win over Montpellier. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It was a curious weekend where the standard of rugby was occasionally compromised by adverse weather and perhaps a little pressure and anxiety that crept into performances with so much at stake. But, nevertheless, it was enthralling stuff because of fluctuating fortunes and the knock-on effect they had in identifying the seeds, one to eight, and the quarter-final matches that were created as a result.
Leinster and Munster both benefitted from ruthless second half displays, more focused, disciplined and accurate to copper-fasten the victories that allowed them finish as first and third seeds respectively and in doing so avoid any potential meeting until the final.
Ulster’s season were once again laid low by injury, losing wings Jacob Stockdale and Louis Ludik by the half an hour mark in their 26-7 defeat to Wasps at the Ricoh Arena, thereby missing out on a place in the knock-out stages of the tournament. Les Kiss’ side had arguably the toughest assignment when all things were considered.
Leinster looking to mimic previous success
Leinster’s achievement in winning all six matches in a pool that contained Aviva Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs, the Pro14 Conference A leaders Glasgow Warriors and Montpellier – who are at the top of the French Top 14 table – is remarkable.
What may appeal to their supporters ahead of a potentially tricky quarter-final against the two-time and defending champions, Saracens, is that Leinster have a history of beating the defending champions when it comes to two of their three European triumphs.
When Leinster won the Heineken Cup in 2009 they beat the defending champions Munster in the semi-final and when they won their second crown in 2011 they found a way past the 2010 kingpins, Toulouse, again at the penultimate stage of the tournament. In claiming the crown the following year for the third time and second in succession they weren’t in a position to beat themselves, as title holders.
Mark McCall’s Saracens have won the Champions Cup in 2015 and 2016 and even if Leinster did manage to slip past them, the Scarlets – the 2017 Pro14 champions – or the team that finished top of the league stage in France last season, La Rochelle, stand in their way. So if Leo Cullen’s side do claim a fourth European crown in Bilbao no one can dispute the crème de la crème this season.
Plenty for Ireland to get excited about
The Ireland squad convened in Carton House on Sunday night a little under a fortnight out from the start of the 2018 Six Nations Championship. Joe Schmidt’s side travel to Paris to take on France in the opening match and given the relative success of all four provinces in Europe – Ulster unfortunately missing out on the last weekend – the players will do so with reasonable confidence.
While there have been many outstanding performances, two players have really stood out throughout the Christmas and New Year period – Leinster centre Robbie Henshaw and Munster wing Keith Earls. Henshaw was once again superb in his team’s win over Montpellier, leading the way with 17 tackles, but it is that high level of performance in switching between the 12 and 13 jerseys that is so impressive. He is arguably Leinster’s Player of the Year to this point; that takes into consideration the impact of the precociously gifted Jordan Larmour.
There is a direct correlation between Munster’s last two wins in European and the broken field running of Earls, who has both helped to create tries for others as well as touching down himself. He is sharp and decisive on the ball and providing his side with a cutting edge that will hopefully translate to the national side.
Pro14 dazzles Top 14
Saracens proved to be an exception to the rule when it came to the performances of most of the Aviva Premiership and French Top 14 clubs in the final round of pool matches that lacked flair and imagination for the most part. Wasps and the Exeter Chiefs were perhaps less culpable in this regard but in the latter’s case they were outplayed by the Glasgow Warriors, unable to cope with the Scottish side’s facility to strike from deep.
There was a razzle-dazzle to the way the Warriors set about winning, so too the Scarlets in the win over Toulon suggesting that the best sides in the Pro14 rely more on pace, width, intensity, fitness and skill sets than their counterparts in others leagues, especially the French Top 14.
Montpellier scored two tries from a maul but were largely disjointed everywhere else, Toulon relied on sheer physical power – centre Semi Radradra’s footwork deserves an exception – to try and bully the Scarlets, Castres were devoted to one-out runners and/or the kicking game, there is little subtlety to what Racing 92 did against the Leicester Tigers and even La Rochelle struggled with their offloading game.
Match the French club sides physically, or at least curtail that impact, and at times there is precious little else to their attacking patterns.
English clubs may need to have a look at themselves
When Billy Vunipola pointed out that players were being flogged in the Aviva Premiership last year and needed to have their match minutes reduced not many clubs were prepared to listen. Knee surgery and a fractured arm have kept him out for most of the season and will do so again until mid-April but it’ll be interesting to see if the English clubs heed his warning after a poor showing in Europe in which only one team Saracens made the quarter-finals.
Some of the England players looked tired and beaten up physically and because clubs don’t look to rotate players as much as the Pro14 and especially the Irish provinces; the development of young players is stifled and the marquee names are forced to play too much rugby that tarnishes the product in terms of quality.