European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 1 Review

Unexpectedly predictable

The first round of European Rugby Challenge Cup is done and dusted. It was a round where the main contenders flexed their muscles while the teams that we thought would struggle did and badly. Hawkeye Sidekick is not surprised. 

What we learned:

Who wants to win this tournament? ASM Clermont, Harlequins, Bristol Bears, Benetton Rugby, Connacht Rugby, Sale Sharks, Ospreys, La Rochelle, Stade Francais, Worcester Warriors, Dragons, Northampton Saints.

Who want nothing to do with the tournament? Agen, Grenoble, Bordeaux Begles (four hookers brought to Galway, good job it lashed down for the game as the selection would have looked pitiful). 

Who have no chance of winning the tournament? Zebre Rugby (not advancing from the pool), Ensei STM (eighteen points shine of leaking one hundred points) and Timisaora Saracens (overwhelmed all over the park).

Standout Performance:

Harlequins, Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors had keynote wins but the manner in which ASM Clermont disposed of Northampton Saints was quite emphatic. The French side ripped through the hosts at will scoring six excellent well worked tries. Northampton Saints saved face with two late tries to put some points on the board but this was as emphatic a win you will see all season in Europe. ASM Clermont look primed to be the key protagonist in this tourney. Forty-one points scored on the road; impressive. 

Low Point:

The news of abuse to Irish official Joy Neville from Perpignan team and fans last weekend. A decision according to the rule books is a red card. Neville involved the TMO and they made the call. The Perpignan natives got restless and their barrage of abuse to the Irish official was disgraceful. Perpignan’s season spirals out of control. They were already struggling to contain Sale Sharks on the ground when the red card came. A team who could easily down tool on this tournament on the back of that home loss. 

What to expect next week: 

Several epic hammerings look on the card. La Rochelle have a home fixture against Ensei STM where the French side scored eighty-two points last weekend against the same opposition. I think it is safe to say a similar mauling is on the cards; does the tournament no favors. The same goes for Timisaora Saracens who travel to ASM Clermont. Best of luck team, you are getting an absolute hiding of epic proportions. 

Pau and Stade Francais on paper looks a tasty French encounter. Stade Francais after losing to Worcester Warriors at home are in must win territory; will be interesting to see Pau’s team selection and performance after last weekend’s loss to Ospreys.

Sale Sharks and Connacht should be an excellent encounter. AJ McGinty facing his old Irish province, both sides will look to play on the front foot so expecting tries in that encounter.

Worcester Warriors and Ospreys also looks much more tasty compared to last week. Warriors were superb in their win in Paris; strong end to the game and they will look with confidence to face an Ospreys side whose pack wore down Pau to secure a decisive win.

ERC Final: Saracens 28 – 17 Clermont ASM

Kudos to Saracens

I tweeted on Friday to ask whether there were any European Rugby Cup finals on such was the lack of coverage on the games (well in Ireland at any rate). I was hoping and praying that Clermont ASM would win but unfortunately, another final, another heartbreaking loss was confirmed by a superb performance from Owen Farrell and ultra efficient pack.

Clermont have now lost eight of their last nine major final appearances. This final loss can be traced back to the early exchanges where Saracens set out their stall early; set the tempo early and tested Clermont defensive structures out wide. In only the first minute, a slick Saracens move allowed Chris Ashton (love him / hate him) to create the line break early for nearly the opening try only for last ditch defending.

The onslaught was incessant and the one trait that Saracens possess is to keep the scoreboard ticking along when dominant. The deft kick through from Alex Goode was pure genius; quick visualization that Speeding was looking to assist his colleagues by coming into the line. The kick was on point and the pace of Ashton to outstrip the off balance Speeding was excellent; the try for the winger to break the ERC try record and they say Saracens do not play expansive rugby?

Owen Farrell may have missed that conversion but Saracens were dominant in the pack in the opening quarter. George Kruis was simply outstanding yesterday. A player who goes under the radar. I have always raved about Maro Itoje on this blog but Kruis is the perfect complement; his back row background means that his style and mobility matches perfectly with Itoje’s all action play. Kruis was imperious on the set piece; lineout was on point throughout and his close range running line to score Saracens second try was excellent and surely will be a pivotal figure for Gatland in the Lions tour (even more so if Jones fails to prove his fitness).

Clermont were like a child on recital night freezing on stage in front of their parents (fans) for the first twenty minutes. It was a chastening experience in that opening quarter. The Clermont pack was being bullied around and add to the fact that defensive misreads out wide were causing massive gain line breaks for the reigning champions. Credit where is due, they fought back with tenacity. Parra unerring with the boot and their opening try showed a willingness to take on Saracens at the set piece. Rougerie creating the initial phase off the scrum which set the platform for the try.

Saracens make you do things that are unfamiliar and stupid. Munster’s half backs endured a miserable afternoon in the semi-final as Saracens defensive line speed and pack pressure forced Munster into an one dimensional unit consistently kicking ball away having several meaningless phases of play (one out ball receivers). Clermont for a brief moment did a Saracens on Saracens with their second try of the final; the line break from Speeding bordered on madness but you have to try something different to unlock a resolute defense. The quick line breaks and speed of pass suddenly saw Ashton and Farrell faced with a Goliath on the wing and a deft offload to Nick Abendanon was just desserts for a superb try. The image of Farrell and Ashton being bounced off the tackle was astonishing.

It was a shame that Clermont had not quelled the early onslaught, the energy to get back into the contest showed in the final quarter as Saracens found another gear and more energy. The pack started to dominate again thanks in no small part to the runs of Billy Vunipola from set piece and first receiver position; a superb performance from the eight position and the reigning champions were forcing Clermont to throw extra bodies to the ruck to stop Vunipola and hence create space out wide. The line running of Saracens was precise and Clermont made defensive misread after misread hitting decoy line runners.

Goode’s try spelled the end of the contest.. Clermont were finished and Saracens pack were now dominant in the scrum, another penalty conceded which was dispatched by Farrell to give the scoreline an accurate score and feel. Finals are there to be won and Clermont played with intense fear in the opening quarter, that was their undoing. Parra and Lopez tried hard but they were stifled at the important parts of the contest. Parra was tigerish in denying Billy Vunipola in that final quarter but it only delayed the inevitable.

Saracens are the most equipped, tactically astute team again in NH rugby this season. There is no weak link in their side and any weak points (perhaps Ashton defensively is nullified by excellent team work and defensive structures).  They are the template for other clubs to aspire to and with the likes of George, Itoje, Kruis still in their youthful prime along with the ever influential Farrell at ten, this team could be winning more silverware in the years to come.

Heartbreak for Clermont. The crowd in Clermont-Ferrand was superb. Where was the corresponding crowd in Saracens / London? Allianz Arena surely could have being used. Saracens are an excellent rugby team on the pitch but there is work to do to build the brand with the London public. The die hard fans were in attendance at Murrayfield but with no video feed of their fans in London, it left questions of how popular are Saracens as a rugby club in London? An European Cup triumph (twice) surely should galvanize support in the communities around the impressive Allianz Arena. Disappointing.

Clermont — not sure where they go from here. They get so far but fall short. The historical precedence of final failures is wrecking havoc on this side. They nearly creaked against Leinster (who will be kicking themselves for getting beat in the semi-final) in that second half of the semi-final. There is always a vulnerability about Clermont away from home and so it proved in this contest. Clermont can buy all the players they want but they are destined to finish agonizingly short of the grand prize. Superb support but the chains of final failures in the past will forever haunt this club until they break the hoodoo. Mental approach has to be addressed, the ability to perform in final appearances. When that comes remains to be seen?

Saracens are now multiple ERC champions. A great accolade for Mark McCall who has provided the structure and leadership to allow the team to grow and prosper. The profile of players such as Itoje, Kruis and George and the fact that they honed their skills with the club as youngster is so rewarding. Owen Farrell at ten is a superstar, imagine how good he will be next season after a tough tour to New Zealand with the Lions tour? The first tour made him as a player, this tour will define him and his legacy to come.

The workmanlike and professional nature of this setup is there for all to see. The teamwork and work rate with and without the ball, the decision making and the constant attention to detail to expose opposition during analysis making opponents one dimensional. It is the complete package. Plenty despise this team but this team are superb champions. The fact that Chris Ashton is now the leading ERC try scorer says enough of the ability of this side to cut loose when presented with opportunities; clinical and precise — the hallmark of champions. Congratulations Saracens!