European Rugby Reflections

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Expansive style or not that is the question? 

The final whistle sounds in Grenoble and the Connacht players reflect on what might have being. 33-32 speaks volumes in terms of the open nature of the contest but the defeat has raised questions on the Westerners ability to mix up their game enough to close out contests.

19-3 lead was just reward for an excellent Connacht first quarter showing. They hit the ground running with the back row winning the breakdown battle allowing Shane O’Leary the time and space to launch his runners. The pace out wide was too much at times for the hosts and with Matt Healy electrifying pace from full back, Connacht looked well in control.

It was a time in hindsight where Connacht need to take stock, play the percentage plays for the first ten minutes and frustrate their hosts to the extent where they could easily counter off Grenoble mistakes.

However, Connacht continued to adopt an expansive style which unfortunately exposed defensive holes and allowed Grenoble back into the contest with a try which will have being horrendous to review in the video analysis room. Missed tackles around the ruck area, the players know that they have to do better.

The rest of the game is irrelevant. It is a gut wrenching loss given the early advantage created but we are now at the business end of the season where defensive structures win playoff games. Connacht have the attacking traits but their defensively structures at times have allowed teams to get back into several recent games.

Pat Lam will continue to promote the open expansive style of play but Connacht need to look at the defensive side of their game as they will be punished in a potential playoff contest in the weeks to come. Street smarts are required from the Westerners in order to create memorable end of season memories.

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Is this the year? 

This is the year where Saracens will win the European Rugby Cup competition. They are the side you either admire or hate, they are like marmite. The sight of Chris Ashton show boating with his tries is enough to sway a lot of rugby followers away from the London club but the team are built on solid core values; hard work, determination and organization.

Saracens have learned from last season’s final loss to Toulon and added more expansive style of play when allows. Their points tally this season has caught the eye while remaining fiercely proud of their defensive system. The front five look incredibly strong and Itoje is now assuming full leadership responsibilities.

The beauty about Saracens now is that they can now take you on either expansively or deep in the trenches. Their kicking options off the tee are excellent with Farrell and Hodgson in the ranks too. They will feel confident of progressing against a Wasps side who recovered from moments of weakness to beat Exeter Chiefs. Wasps need to bring their top game in the pack but Saracens for me hold too many aces and should win by ten points.

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Dan Carter kicking surplus to requirements? 

Racing Metro just about got past the challenge of Toulon who had only themselves to blame with an ill-disciplined last ten minutes. Racing Metro looked to beat themselves off the park. Dan Carter’s kicking expertise was deemed surplus to requirements and Machenaud just about kicked the decisive match winning score.

Machenaud was a relieved man as prior to his final penalty, he had missed a regulation penalty. Toulon should have had a lifeline but their indiscipline at the breakdown was correctly pinged by Wayne Barnes.

Racing Metro have several key players in their lineup. Carter is a genius at fly-half but was moved to twelve for this encounter. Imhoff on the wing is so underrated, great try to kick off proceedings and Racing looks extremely dangerous with ball in hand.

The Racing pack has stepped up in recent weeks and Luke Charteris is the go to lineout option. There is no weak link in this outfit and it will take an excellent Leicester performance in the last four to upset this team. Chris Masoe at eight is the heartbeat of this side and the New Zealander leads by example.

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Leicester Tigers nous is key

This may be a bit harsh on Leicester but given the facile Stade Francais performance yet again at Welford Road last weekend, Leicester have plenty to prove against a star laden Racing Metro. Leicester are on a crest of a wave with the soccer club poised to win the EPL and the Rugby team are also making positive waves.

Leicester Tigers are a side who pride themselves on organization, defensive solidity and set piece. Their pack will look to build the platform for the likes of Goneva to exploit any spaces out wide. Their street smarts are unrivalled and if Racing Metro are not precise, Leicester will take full advantage.

The Tigers prey on opposition mistakes evident in their demolition of Munster at Thomond Park in the pool stages; they punished Munster mistakes from start to finish and never let Munster back into the contest. The questions will be asked of Leicester if they are trailing Racing Metro into the last quarter.

Does Leicester throw caution to the wind or do they sit tight and look for Racing Metro errors to get back into the contest? I am not sure that Leicester Tigers have the back line options to create massive issues for Racing Metro. Freddie Burns will need to have the game of his life for Leicester Tigers to win this contest.

It is a Saracens vs. Racing Metro final for me but do not write off Leicester Tigers in causing the semi-final upset. There may be no Ireland representation but the excitement of the semi-finals should not diminish.