Rugby Thoughts

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Saracens are European Rugby Cup Champions

After steady progress in recent seasons, once unfashionable London Rugby club Saracens are now at the European Rugby summit. Saracens have learned from their mistakes in recent seasons and they handled the final occasion in an efficient manner compared to Racing Metro who were disjointed throughout, not helped by their decision to field a clearly unfit Dan Carter at fly-half.

21-9 scoreline was an accurate reflection on how the final went. After a cagey first quarter where both sides had their moments, Saracens seized control of the final with a pack performance which oozed confidence and forced their counterparts to leak penalties at regular intervals.

While Owen Farrell was unerring in his accuracy from the tee, Racing Metro were scrambling to identify a consistent goal kicker with Dan Carter clearly not up to performing his kicking duties. Muller to his credit was excellent in his penalty kicking duties but there did not seem to be a coherent backup kicker strategy by the Parisian outfit.

The decision to risk Dan Carter backfired when Lyon was greeted with a torrential downpour midway through the first period and Carter was unable to assert any influence on the game as the ball became a bar of soap for Racing Metro when entering into Saracens territory. Carter’s leg injury meant that the legendary New Zealander was quite one dimensional and his reluctance to put ball into space was evident throughout his final cameo.

This final will not be remembered as a classic. The weather conditions extinguished any hope of an expansive final thus nullifying the threat of the likes of Imhoff on the flanks for Racing Metro. It meant that Racing had to win this final with their pack and they fell well short of the performance required to win the match.

With a youthful squad, Saracens can look forward to many seasons of competing for top honors. The emergence of George Kruis and Maro Itoje in the second row positions, Jamie George at hooker and the likes of Owen Farrell and Duncan Taylor in the back line means that opponents, the future looks so bright for the North London club and one would not bet against them winning the Aviva Premiership in two weeks.

Love them or loathe them, Saracens are here for the long haul. Their game smarts won them the final last weekend but this team have evolved this season evident in their big scores racked up against Toulouse and Ulster in the pool stages. They are the only team to go through the tournament with a 100% record, immense feat.

The success was just desserts for Mark McCall and Charlie Hodgson; two men who have embodied everything good in rugby. McCall’s reign at Saracens have being immense, the foundations of the club are in a firm footing and McCall has developed an effective youth academy which has identified talents such as George, Kruis and the new face of world rugby Itoje.

Charlie Hodgson’s illustrious playing career has finally secured the European Cup medal he richly deserves; an unassuming player whose performances for Sale and Saracens have being on point. Hodgson has provided the guidance and experience for the likes of Owen Farrell to flourish.

Racing Metro are a team on the upward curve. Their performances in Europe this season confirmed initial promise from last season. The talent at their disposal is impressive in the fly-half and back line positions but the pack is a work in progress where their conditioning and discipline was exposed by an abrasive Saracens pack.

An interesting off-season beckons and one thing is for sure is that Castrogiovanni will be nowhere near the club next season; how an experienced professional (say that loosely) can go and party with PSG players in Las Vegas when his team-mates were putting their bodies on the line against Leicester in the European Cup semi-final beggars belief. Time for Castrogiovanni to do the honorable thing; retire and kudos to Conor O’Shea to drop him from the Italian national squad, something that Brunel should have done years ago.

Racing Metro like Saracens last season will learn from this final heartbreak. The pain and devastation in the dressing room after this final should spur the club on in domestic action and in Europe again next season. Discipline and the need to identify a player who can step up to backup Dan Carter (if injured) is required. Interesting days ahead and for the likes of Ronan O’Gara, a more pivotal role in the club setup will be required next season to lift the squad to new heights next season.

Wasps – the new Montpelier?

With news that Kurtley Beale and Willie Le Roux are to become Wasps players next season, it marks a significant departure for Wasps who prided themselves a rugby club who nurtured talent at the grassroots. Wasps are trying to clone the policy implemented by Montpelier who to be honest could be named the ‘ANZAC All Stars’ such is the SH rugby talent on their books for Jake White to call upon.

While signings of the standard of Beale and Le Roux will bring potentially short term success, one wonders what the lasting effect will be for Wasps? Will a local Coventry boy who is a promising rugby talent even get a look in at the club. The whole ethos of rugby is fundamentally changing; the need for instant success is diluting the true essence of what it is to be a rugby club.

Import players do little for the development of the national game; you only have to look at the French national team in recent years where imports have stifled development of homegrown players who are forced to ply their trade in the lower leagues. England Rugby is in good health at this time but the talent pool may diminish quite rapidly if teams such as Wasps decide to buy import for short term gain.

Pro 12 Preview

Two intriguing playoff fixtures this weekend. Ulster have to produce a performance, otherwise I fear that the province will have lost their chance to get to the next level. Leinster are in a vulnerable position at present; their loss to Ulster at Kingspan Stadium exposed weakness with and without the ball. The lack of game line breaks from Leinster during this contest was to the fore as Ulster absorbed all Leinster could throw and identified overlaps out wide consistently. A routine mauling of Treviso in the last regular home game of the season does not mask the issues from the penultimate fixture.

Ulster have the talent; have the financial backing and it is high time they delivered silverware for their supporters. Pienaar and Jackson need to play in the right areas and execute the exit strategy with efficiency. The Ulster pack need to be abrasive and look to build their platform from the set piece where the lineout has fired well in recent weeks. The back line have enormous potential with Marshall and McCloskey in the three quarters. They have the edge over Teo and Ringrose but whether they get the supply of quick ball is another story.

I sense that if Ulster are to be considered a serious team, they need to win a game such as this. Ulster get my vote considering how exposed Leinster look at this time and that Ulster have come into form at the right time. Ulster are the classic Jekyll and Hyde team so this prediction could be ripped up well before full-time.

As for Glasgow, the reigning champions have their backs against the wall. A loss to Connacht in the last regular game of the season at the Sportsgrounds mean another fixture at the Galway venue. Puafisi’s suspension will be a loss but Alex Dunbar’s injury withdrawal could be absolutely pivotal when Aki and Henshaw in the Connacht three quarters.

The weather forecast for Saturday is rather mixed and it will be the team who can game manage the best will prevail. Connacht showed great game decisions in the last fixture to win a game that on another season could have seen Glasgow survive and win. McGinty at ten is a huge addition. The pack are healed and ready to go. Bealham, Buckley and McCartney have played stellar all season. Muldowney and Dillane are a formidable second row partnership. Muldoon at eight; there are no weak points.

Glasgow if allowed to get quick ruck ball are a dangerous animal. This is such an intriguing fixture. Home field advantage is huge but Glasgow are a team which revel in playoff rugby this time of year; they know how to get the job done and there should be no surprises from Connacht this time round. It all depends on the packs this weekend; back lines win games, packs win championships.

Connacht have not shirked any pressure games this season. It is so so tough to call. Slight edge to Connacht but there will be one score in this contest and a refereeing decision may prove crucial to the final outcome.