The penultimate games of the European Rugby Champions Cup have concluded and we are starting to see the favorites come to the fore while some of Hawkeye Sidekick pre-competition fancies are consigned to the scrap heap. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the weekend action and wonders if this competition is now destined to become an Saxon / Franco dominated competition for the conceivable future.
Eighty minutes on the clock in the Stade Mayol and Toulon are looking down the barrel of a shock European Cup exit. Wasps who have grown with each pool game of this campaign were ahead and defending with intensity and organization, it required something special for Toulon to get out of jail and it duly came courtesy of Drew Mitchell who went in after concerted phrase play. Questions will ensue on a suspiciously looking knock on at the base of the ruck which laid the foundation for the hosts to launch the ball out wide but match official Nigel Owens never saw it and Toulon survive for another day. Wondering if this was the day that Toulon were let off the hook? They will be a dangerous animal come end of April when the quarter finals are set. With Bath now eliminated from the tournament, one would fancy the French club to secure the bonus point secured to top the pool and a potential home quarter final. Wasps were tenacious throughout, defensively solid and the pack led by the impressive Joe Launchbury took the game to the hosts creating penalty opportunities. It was a heartbreaking way to loss the game but Dai Young will be quick to identify the positives from this contest. Wasps are a team which has being transformed, a team who are capable of mixing it with the best. Wasps may not win this competition this term but the foundations are set for long term progression and dominance both domestically and in European action.
With Toulon wiping the cold sweat from their brow, the performance of the weekend came from Racing Metro who frankly outgunned a miserable Llanelli Scarlets challenge in Paris. This was as one sided a contest as the 64-14 scoreline will suggest as the hosts were dominant in all facets of play and with Dan Carter controlling the game with the minimum of fuss, the Welsh outfit were blow off the park. Scarlets were to an extent their own worse enemy with a couple of sin bins for wild, reckless high tackles but Racing Metro’s ability to offload at will, the supporting running lines were creating massive holes in a Scarlets defense which to be fair has being solid in Pro 12 season action. Racing Metro are in the mood to stake a serious claim for European Cup honors and this demolition job will add to pundits claims that this team are the form team but as Clermont will testify, it is not how you start the competition, it is how you finish this competition at the business end of the season. Northampton extinguished Glasgow’s European hopes for another year, a late try from Mallinder (North’s aerial dominance was stellar) after a deft diagonal kick from Meyler decided the game at the death. Glasgow were made to pay for a late Swinson sin bin. Narrow margins in this contest and Glasgow came up short. Northampton have seriously work to do next weekend, a five point haul away to Scarlets and then hope for a favorable draw in the last eight. Their two try haul was impressive but their inability to stop leaking penalties looks like a fatal Achilles heel even at this stage of the competition.
Clermont, the perennial bridesmaid of this competiton were made to pay for lack of precision and continuity against an Ospreys who produced their best forty minute performance in a rain swept second half at the Liberty Stadium. How Wayne Barnes did not issue a red card to Clermont back row Viktor Kolelishvili is beyond me? A clear push on the referee and the match official did nothing. Incredible decision that on another day could have being crucial for Osprey’s chances of winning this contest but they used this controversy as motivation with the pack taking on the mantle to create penalty opportunities in that second half. Biggar’s kicking was unerring and Clermont could not find the tempo and quick ball required to unlock a resolute home defense. Ospreys must face a tricky tie away to Exeter who succumbed to a late sucker punch try from Bordeaux but the South-West England club would like nothing more than to add the scalp of Ospreys to their list of upsets this season in this competition. Clermont potentially will bag a five point haul next weekend which will create the pressure on Ospreys. Clermont may profit from Exeter upsetting the form book but Clermont’s lack of precision and ability to win the breakdown battle may come back to haunt the side later in this tournament. Justin Tipuric was lights out outstanding in this contest, compel anyone to tell me that a back row player has had a more dominant first quarter to a contest than the Welsh man on Friday night. Immense performance of breakdown excellence and kill ball which allowed Osprey’s defense to set and organize which yielded the win.
The Irish provinces had a mixed weekend. Munster restored pride and honor to the jersey with a stirring performance against a Stade Francais outfit who struggled with the abrasive nature of Munster’s play throughout. With CJ Stander leading from the front with a performance full of work rate, aggression in ball carrying and tackling, the hosts grew into this contest and after an early Morne Steyn penalty scored their first try thanks to Mike Sharry, an impressive maul from the pack to drive the hooker over for the score. Munster were full value of their lead but needed to add to the scoreboard and the try from Keith Earls just before the interval was the perfect antidote. There appeared little danger when Earls took the ball just inside Stade’s half but the disguised run fooled the Stade cover and a massive gap opened which Earls duly exploited. The finish was emphatic and the crowd knew how crucial the score was with the celebration which ensued. Ian Keatley, the scapegoat for Munster woes during this miserable result sequence produced an assured game and it was his deft kick behind Stade’s cover which was now in disarray allowed Zebo to collect and score under the posts for the third try. Munster were now reveling in their surroundings as Stade were struggling to gain any game line advantage. Andy Farrell influence or not but Munster’s line speed was remarkably improved and the first time tackles were executed with a vigor and intensity not seen for several months. The bonus point was secured with twelve minutes remaining on the clock as good incisive work from Conor Murray at scrum-time setup possession for inspirational CJ Stander to cross over. Stander’s man of the match award was well merited but the Munster team to a man stood up to the criticism and produced a performance which is now the blueprint for squad development going forward. The performance needs to be reproduced in the weeks to come. Stade were left shell shocked and they were unable to secure a vital losing bonus point as repeated players in isolated areas were held up and ball was conceded to the hosts. Stade will refocus and look to the Leicester Tigers game to secure the win to secure a top eight berth. With Leicester already through and a home quarter final in the bag, Stade will fancy their chances of winning this contest but they were given a rough reality check by Munster whose work rate and ability to knock Stade off their game plan was notable throughout. Munster win, the win is welcome but it should not be over stated. Munster had zero pressure or expectation in this round but the pride in the performance was admirable. Axel Foley will reflect on this campaign with regret but at least this result can be used as a stepping stone for further team improvement.
Leinster’s cubs have opened an intriguing question for head coach Leo Cullen. The quality and caliber of performance witnessed by youngsters such as Treacy, Ringrose, Van den Flier was immense. Their ability to contribute in all facets of play caught the eye and their energy level simply overwhelmed a Bath team who have being extremely disappointing in this tournament. Leinster were dominant throughout. The hosts pack dominated large chunks of play and Ian Madigan kicking penalties and orchestrating Leinster’s attack with confidence, this was Leinster’s best performance of the season. The young players in the Leinster squad have flat out exposed the regulars in their work rate, skills execution and ability to make the right play at the right time. Cullen will be relieved of this decision as 6N looms but the likes of Treacy in particular have to be fast tracked. His performance in the Leinster pack was sensational in all facets and his mobility around the park was immense. Tadhg Furlong has taken a bit of flak in this blog but I will give the Wexford native his due today, excellent performance in set piece and open play. Marty Moore may leave for England next season but Leinster are unearthing talent which offset these losses. Cullen will rue the start of this European campaign but at least he was able to run the rule over his fledgling squad members and the majority have passed the Bath test. Wasps next will pose a different challenge but Leinster are building serious momentum for a serious Pro 12 push.
In last week’s column, I mentioned the need for Ulster to perform for the full eighty minutes. This point was emphasized in yesterday’s 33-17 loss to a Saracens team who have all the attributes now to win the top European prize. Ulster started this contest with gusto and with McCloskey tenaciously carrying ball and winning the game line battle, Ulster went in front courtesy of a smart Luke Marshall try in that opening period. Saracens did not panic however and their pack took charge with a performance which will strike fear for any of the quarter finalists come April. An emphatic maul from the hosts before the interval set the tone and with Ulster’s defense waning under the strain of constant Saracens go forward ball, three more tries were scored. Ulster were a well beaten side at the end of this contest but the real test is next weekend and the home tie to Oyonnax, a five point haul and Ulster will advance to the last eight of this competition. Leicester away potentially could be their last eight opponent and if Ulster can put together a complete eighty minute performance, there is still hope for the Kingspan Stadium team in Europe this season. Toulouse succumbed to Oyonaax away, another devastating, reputation sapping defeat for an once proud regional powerhouse. Time, legacy and divine right to win matches moves on and Toulouse are in serious danger of being left behind the likes of Toulon, Stade, Racing in domestic competition let alone compete in European action.