The European Rugby Champions Cup pool phrase for 2015-16 is now in the books, a pool phrase where English and French clubs secure all the quarter final berths, a pool phrase where the Pro 12 frankly were wholly exposed in squad depth and talent. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the last pool game round action and wonders if Clermont Auvergne have now lost their opportunity to ever win the ultimate European Rugby top prize.
Au Revoir Clermont
The biggest shock in the newly revamped tournament was the elimination of Clermont Auvergne, a rugby club who look destined never to win the top European Rugby prize. Clermont have all the attributes required to win this competition; a town whose pride for their club holds no bounds, a club whose squad is an embarrassment of riches, a stadium whose home record rivals that of any team in European Cup rugby. Bordeaux Begles came into this game by most observers as cannon fodder. The French away team attitude was presumed and it appeared a routine bonus point win for Clermont and another last eight appearance. However, Bordeaux Begles did not read the script with a performance full of endeavor and determination which exposed the mental scars of the past inflicted on Clermont who will not want to look at the last fifteen minutes of this contest.
Clermont were in total control heading into the final quarter, the bonus point was secured with pack dominance allowing Parra to launch Jonathan Davies in the three quarters early doors. Bordeaux Begles frankly could have given up the ghost but where it was just sheer abandonment, decided to offload the ball at every given opportunity in that final quarter which was taking its toll on the home side fitness levels and home supporters nerves. When Julien Bardy decided to let his Bordeaux opponent crash to the floor after a tip tackle, JP Doyle had no choice but to issue the yellow card. Bordeaux Begles saw their opportunity as Riva and Saaili crossed for tries where offloading and incisive passing was too much for the fourteen men Clermont.
Pool 2 will be remembered for an extraordinary gaffe from experienced scrum-half Morgan Parra with three minutes to go . With Clermont given a penalty straight in front of Begles post, Parra decided to tap and go. The ensuing passage of play was held up by the visitors and the game was over. A penalty kick success for the hosts and they would have being advanced to the last eight by the skin of their teeth. Perhaps, it summed up Clermont’s issues in this competition. A lack of assurance and game management has being their achilles heel and today’s decision by Parra will go down in history as one of the most costly mistakes in this tournament’s history. Clermont are out and one wonders if this latest reversal will be a fatal blow to the club ever getting to a position to win out this competition. Money aplenty has being pumped into Clermont over the last fifteen years and the end product has being one French Championship. Refund anyone?
Pro 12 Anguish
Let us be quite frank. This could be the reality check required for the organizers of the Pro 12 tournament. All representative teams apart from Ulster were quite frankly not at the races as the league’s interest in this year’s competition was extinguished as soon as Stade ran in their forth try against Leicester Tigers in Paris early this afternoon.
Ulster can consider themselves unlucky not to advance; their performances in their pool were good but failure to secure a losing bonus point to Saracens home or away proved fatal. Their 61-3 triumph over Oyonaax was a superb effort and points to a promising end of season for Les Kiss’ side.
The other Irish provinces were already out of the competition before the last two pool games. Munster redeemed themselves to a small extent with two bonus point wins over Stade and Treviso but their squad limitations, lack of game plan and game management execution were exposed against Leicester and Stade early doors. Small morale victories but massive rebuild work is required in the province in all levels to get to compete for even a last eight berth in this competition going forward.
Leinster looked to have turned a corner and then were walloped by a rampant Wasps outfit yesterday at the Ricoh Arena. 51-10 scoreline cannot be glossed over. Leinster were incredibly poor particularly in that second half where their defensive line simply crumbled. Eliot Daly had an emphatic afternoon with ball in hand, consistently picking gaps in Leinster three quarter defense. The lack of fight and hunger from Leinster to get back into the game was the more worrying aspect to this performance; akin to Munster’s horrid reversal away to Stade. No leadership in the Leinster team and Leo Cullen is suddenly under pressure yet again with Conor O’Shea free to join any rugby club at the end of the current season. Leo Cullen has integrated promising youth players such as Ringrose, Van den Flier and Furlong but it is the senior players who are not playing up to par. Sexton’s return to the province has being disappointing, another head injury and questions on 6N availability loom large. Sexton’s departure signaled Jimmy Gopperth’s emergence in the contest; superb performance to stick it to a few Leinster fans who ridiculed the Kiwi last season (scapegoat no more).
The Scottish challenge lay with Glasgow Warriors, a season which promised much in European competition faded into disappointment last weekend at Franklin Gardens with the late heartbreaking try from Mallinder. Their win against Racing at home this weekend show that the side have the ability to mix it with anyone on their day; it is now consistency for the Warriors to perform in Europe week in, week out. Their objective is to climb up the table pronto in order to get a favorable draw next season in Europe.
Ospreys will look back on today as a missed opportunity. A trip to Exeter Chiefs and the Welsh regional side knew that a win was the minimum requirement. However, Ospreys failed to perform the level required and Exeter exposed Ospreys repeatedly out wide with a performance full of invention and passing ability. Exeter Chiefs are the surprise team of the tournament. Sandy Park is a fortress and their vocal home support roared their side to pool winners. Exeter’s decision making and ability to play what was in front of them was excellent; in stark contrast Ospreys went into their shell hoping that their pack would save the day which was never going to be enough. Exeter win the pool on points difference and will play with a freedom and abandonment which will pose a danger to Wasps in the last eight.
Scarlets, top of the Pro 12 league but were exposed in all facets of play in this season’s competition. The saving grace for Llanelli is that the 6N looms large, opposing teams will be depleted and that means more opportunities to win points. Llanelli’s lack of physicality upfront was their weak point, no foundation in which to involve their exciting back line. A sobering day for all involved with the Pro 12 but emphasizes the gap between the league and England / French leagues. Yes, the money is a big difference but the skill set in the Pro 12 is inferior. When you add match officiating which could be best described as inconsistent, Pro 12 team bad habits are being punished by English / French officiating crews. Time to reflect for the Pro 12.
European Cup – Favorites?
Saracens for me look like the team who could go all the way. Their performance against Toulouse this weekend highlighted their traditional pack work rate and physicality but also emphasized their back line play with two well taken tries and squandered another two tries at least. Owen Farrell’s gaffe was comedy gold. With Northampton Saints next, Saracens will be confident of victory at the Allianz and with lessons learned from last season fresh in their memory, Saracens have all that is required to win the top prize. There is no weak link in this outfit. The pack is as solid an unit left in this tournament. Jamie George’s lineout execution has being on point throughout the pool phrase and when you add the stifling back row play of Krus, Burger, Vunipola; you see how Saracens can create the basic foundations to allow their half-backs and back line to flourish. Wigglesworth, Farrell / Hodgson tandem has being an efficient unit and with the ever reliable Wylde, Goode and new talent Duncan Taylor providing spark and creativity, there is now an added dimension to their back play. I will tip them to win this competition provided that Toulon are dumped out of the competition by Racing Metro but I have my doubts on that prospect.
A ray of hope flickered for Irish rugby around Lough Atalia, Galway on Saturday afternoon as Connacht clinched their pool in the European Challenge Cup. Do or die encounter was how it was billed in the Galway media and the team led by the impressive Marmion. Henshaw had the bonus point secured over a gutsy Ensei outfit within thirty minutes. All eyes and ears had turned to the outcome of Newcastle and Brive long before the final whistle. Great for Pat Lam’s charges to be involved in European competition come April. Grenoble will be a massive test but one that Connacht should relish. The only Irish team left in European competition, might be an idea to book a trip to lovely Grenoble to support the Connacht team whose brand of free flowing, offloading style of rugby has earned plaudits and now qualification from a pool which on paper was difficult.