Owen Doyle: Champions Cup format needs a rethink

Montpellier’s collapse a sign of how quickly teams can lose interest in redesigned pools

Montpellier players under the posts after conceding a try in their 89-7 defeat to Leinster. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Montpellier players under the posts after conceding a try in their 89-7 defeat to Leinster. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Along the western seaboard and to the south of France lies the true heartland of French rugby. The strongholds of La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Biarritz, Bayonne, Toulouse, Montpellier, Toulon, and many other famous rugby towns along the way. And then there is Castres.

To travel to Stade Pierre Fabre, and come away with a win is a tremendous achievement, and no one should take way from Munster’s win on Friday night. Many had predicted a nasty dog fight, but referee Luke Pearce had come very well prepared. He has lately adopted a ‘less is more’ style of communication, and while a “quiet Pearce” may seem like an excellent example of an oxymoron, he is much the better for it.

Very early on, he removed the potential ugliness from the match. As an all-in fracas developed, Pearce acted quickly, his raised vocal tone and body language made clear his displeasure, and that he would brook no more. While one could question a few of his actual words, that is the approach which this column has been pleading for, and it worked. Others please note.

Gavin Coombes scores a late try to clinch victory for Munster away to Castres. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Gavin Coombes scores a late try to clinch victory for Munster away to Castres. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Even so, the first six points for Munster came from off-the-ball incidents, and he’ll review the potential for a warning here. His French isn’t bad, but it was amusing to hear Castres’ Rory Kockott ask for an English translation after Pearce had spoken to the Castres props – a Canadian and a German.

Munster, happily, are on their way to the knockout stages. They showed positive glimpses with ball in hand, but too often the instinct is to find an opponent to crash into. It’s all a bit Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – the good doctor often being overcome by his inner nemesis, with mistakes and wrong options abounding, instead of what, by now, should be a more convincing running and passing game. The fault surely lies in not adopting a much more ambitious approach long before now.

Connacht’s game plan, on the other hand, is ambitious, and, with Leicester, they served up a splendid match of nine tries. It was devastating to lose at the death, to a wonderful pass, and to a blade of grass just keeping the foot of try scorer, Hosea Saumaki, in play. Andy Friend has been working hard – there is clear vision here, totally bought into by the players.

A very good refereeing performance from Mathieu Raynal, and, again, the French man was quiet, understated and effective. There are always postmatch things to examine, and Connacht may query a few breakdown calls they felt they should have got, but it was the power of the Leicester pack and replacements which really wore them down.

Referee Mathieu Raynal talks to Bundee Aki following Leicester’s late winning try against Connacht at The Sportsground in Galway. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Referee Mathieu Raynal talks to Bundee Aki following Leicester’s late winning try against Connacht at The Sportsground in Galway. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Other matches too were well worth watching, and gave starving supporters much-needed nourishment. Cardiff and Harlequins was a brilliant match; the home team were unlucky to lose to their visitors from London, or, perhaps more accurately, to ‘Quins’ outhalf Marcus Smith, who put in another breathtaking performance.

Wasps v Toulouse another good one, with an increasingly anxious French coach, Ugo Mola, watching his team, the current champions, go down to Wasps’ 14 men with Irish referee, Chris Busby in charge – his biggest test so far, a very important learning curve. The red card to Jacob Umaga, nephew of All-Black Tana, was not without controversy.

Wasps’ Jacob Umaga is shown the red card by referee Chris Busby during their surprise win over Toulouse in Coventry. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Wasps’ Jacob Umaga is shown the red card by referee Chris Busby during their surprise win over Toulouse in Coventry. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

The ball carrier, Martin Page-Relo, was already being tackled and was tilting forward, leading with his head when the two players collided. To all intents and purposes it might well have been considered accidental, as bad as it looked. TMO Brian MacNeice agreed with the referee’s interpretation and Umaga was off after only 30 minutes.

Later on, Busby was calm and correct in mitigating Anthony Jelonch’s high tackle to yellow, and sticking to his own reading of the situation.

Mola will be furious with the Toulouse players, but he’ll also have a valid question relating to a very disappointing forward-pass decision which went against his team as they ran the ball out of defence. This appeared to come from the assistant referee, and was no more clear and obvious than the man in the moon; this just should not happen, Wasps’ converted try from the scrum effectively put the game out of sight for Toulouse.

Ulster went to Northampton and put in an excellent performance, a game plan full of positive adventure, coach Dan McFarland and his team’s efforts deserve no less than their three wins so far. Referee Pierre Brousset, a relative newcomer to these heights, started off in somewhat over-eager fashion, and it looked like we might hear far too much whistle.

But, in fairness, he relaxed into the match, and didn’t get too much wrong. I liked particularly his immediate yellow card to Northampton’s Alex Mitchell who had illegally killed a fast Ulster attack. Too many referees have the erroneous impression that they must give a long-winded warning before producing a yellow.

Montpellier came to Dublin on Sunday, but apart from bringing enough players, they brought nothing else, very poor form. While they have had their own Covid-19 problems, the competition format must also be very seriously questioned. It is all very well planning for a home and away round of 16, if the way of getting there is flawed. It seems clear that a couple of losses nowadays and a team’s interest is likely to wane significantly.

The previous pool stages were generally full of excitement with interest maintained for far longer, and the format was logical, easy to follow. Continued interest was also encouraged by the fact that where a team finished contributed to their European seeding the following season; now it only matters where a team finishes in its own domestic league. The organisers, EPCR, who have lost any sense of identity by heading off to Switzerland, must surely have a long, hard look.

Leinster showed extraordinary skills. With no hint of a split personality they know what they are about, and the straight running, passing, off-loading and support were at times bewilderingly good, 13 tries to one must break several records. Wayne Barnes had very little to do, but he was there when needed to deal accurately with a forearm to the back of the head of Josh van der Flier. Whatever Montpellier’s Masivesi Dakuwaqa was thinking, Barnes got the red card spot-on.

Next weekend may see all four Irish teams in the next round, and, while there is still business to be done, let’s all hope for that, it’d be quite some result.

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