Heineken Champions Cup Final Preview

Five key questions ahead of this final encounter

The semi-final fixtures spoke volumes. Despite Toulouse and Munster Rugby’s best efforts, it was futile as the the two best teams in the competition secured their places in the final with convincing victories. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key question where this eagerly anticipated fixture will be won or lost.

Question 1: Back Row Battle

The back row battle will be intense and the opening moments of this contest from the officiating crew will determine how this game will be played. Garces in the semi-final did not officiate the breakdown area and Saracens took full advantage by swarming the ruck area and causing massive issues for Conor Murray and Munster Rugby to create anything worthwhile.

Wray and Rhodes were immense in these exchanges and Leinster Rugby have been duly warned. Billy Vunipola was his marauding best creating quality ball for Owen Farrell to orchestrate and game management with excellent efficiency.

The loss of Dan Leavy for Leinster Rugby is a massive blow but can the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan stifle the breakdown counter rucking of Saracens. This is a huge facet to this fixture.

Question 2: Kicking Game

Saracens were clinically ruthless in their kicking game against Munster Rugby. From minute one, Owen Farrell peppered Munster Rugby’s back three with challenging aerial bombs. Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam were isolated more than once and this created key early territorial gains for Saracens which worked the Munster Rugby tackle count to exhaustion.

A similar tactic will be expected this weekend but the Leinster Rugby back three potentially of Lowe, Kearney and Byrne should have the street smarts to deal with the threat and potentially launch solid counter attacks if space arises. Leinster Rugby must be incredibly strong under the high ball in these opening exchanges.

Question 3: Lineout Battle

The two best line out set piece operators are in the final. Jamie George has been outstanding for Saracens this season in this competition; the assurance in his throwing coupled with the decisive set piece calls of George Kruis and Maro Itoje have provided the Gallagher Premiership with guaranteed quality ball to work with.

Leinster Rugby have question marks on the hooker position. Will Leinster Rugby look to recall Sean Cronin or go with James Tracy who impressed against Toulouse last time out? Cronin’s line out execution has being under the spotlight this season and Saracens will look to target Leinster Rugby early albeit the reigning champions have James Ryan, Scott Fardy options. The quality of throwing and the precision in the line out calls is going to be huge.

Question 4: Barritt fitness

The fitness of Brad Barritt will be a key talking point prior and during this final contest. Barritt is so uber consistent in his performance on both sides of the ball but his defensive abilities and organization set the tone for his colleagues to follow. Barritt left it all on the line against Munster Rugby last time out as the Irish province failed to get anything going in the wide channels.

Barritt departed at the break but his impact was immense. His ankle injury will be duly noted and can Leinster Rugby’s three quarters expose any injury impact here? Ringrose’s mobility could be huge in potentially securing go forward ball.

Question 5: Sexton vs. Farrell

It is the key match for the media hoards this weekend. Johnny Sexton vs. Owen Farrell. Sexton was outstanding in the Toulouse semi-final win as his pack provided the platform to impress with ball in hand. Owen Farrell similarly was outstanding for Saracens against Munster Rugby. His tenacity and work rate was of a leader in the side; his tackle on Haley to secure a vital opening half penalty was evidence of this.

Both players will be eager to launch their back lines early doors but the game management and kicking game from both needs to be there to keep their opponent off balance. An intriguing match up; both will look to bring game to the gain line, expect fireworks.

Verdict:

For me this final comes down to the pack battle. I have been so impressed by both sides this season in this competition. The front five battle in the scrum will be epic. Both possess game winners in this set piece alone. Both sides will look to be defensively solid and how both sides play Garces will be key.

The nod for me goes with Leinster Rugby still. They are the reigning champions in this competition and until someone knocks them off their perch, they are favorites. Saracens overall game plan has massively evolved but if Leinster Rugby pack can stifle the platform of Saracens early, then there are potent weapons for the reigning champions to win this.

I am expecting fireworks early doors, will predict Garces loses control of this encounter in the opening quarter and a flashpoint will not be far away if both sides attack the breakdown as ferocious as I expect. It is a final for composure and cool heads at critical times and I suspect Leinster Rugby will prevail if only just.

Munster Rugby moment of truth has arrived

Can Munster Rugby get over the European Cup semi-final hurdle of recent past?

The scene is set. Spectacular Easter weekend weather and hopefully rugby to match starting with the clash of Munster Rugby and Saracens at the Ricoh Arena. Can Munster Rugby exercise the ghosts of recent European Cup semi-final defeats to defeat an outstanding Saracens outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at five key areas which Munster Rugby must look to exploit.

Mental Approach

The last two seasons has seen Munster Rugby enter into the semi-final with initial hope only to be dashed quite early in the contest. Two conflicting losses as Saracens pack platform and Racing 92’s back line play exposed massive chinks in the Munster Rugby armory.

These losses came about due to extremely nervy, lethargic Munster Rugby opening cameos as they looked for opposition mistakes rather than look to create a platform of their own to win the contest. Munster Rugby to win tomorrow must be brave, brave in their ability to take setbacks, brave in their ability to believe in the game plan, brave in their ability to make things happen at any stage during the contest.

These losses should be a motivational and not mental impediment to Munster Rugby. This group of players and management need to deliver a big performance at the business end of the season and this is the perfect platform and audience to do just that. Another loss without a punch being seriously landed will have devastating effects on the side long term. 

Pack Platform

A generalized word but the Munster Rugby pack to a man have to provide early tempo and momentum tomorrow. Saracens have a superb set piece and Munster Rugby will need to be clever when they attempt to pinch ball in line out as Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje will look to execute quick line out to potentially unsettle Tyler Bleyendaal in the ten channel.

The areas where Munster Rugby must focus in on the scrum and breakdown. The scrum this season has seen progressively improvement but tomorrow is an ultimate test facing up against the likes of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Titi Lamositele who have looked awesome in this competition this season. John Ryan personally has a huge role to play and his scrummaging performance will be an indicator as to how Munster Rugby do in the contest.

The breakdown battle is an area that Munster Rugby must identify and seize upon. Several live threats for the Irish province with O’Mahony, Stander and O’Donoghue. With Jackson Wray looking to nullify O’Mahony, it could be down to the likes of Tadhg Beirne to provide the starring role in the breakdown exchanges. Early breakdown success for Munster Rugby and this result is very much on.

Prepare for abrasive opening period

There should be no surprise in that the Munster Rugby back three will subjected to physical and abrasive aerial threat in the opening quarter. I am expecting Owen Farrell to pepper the likes of Mike Haley and Darren Sweetnam early with testing kicks and the back three need to be strong under the dropping ball. There could be a potential late hit for good measure just to test the resolve of the Munster Rugby side.

Keith Earls’ withdrawal is a blow but provided that colleagues support Darren Sweetnam like they did against Edinburgh Rugby, the Cork native will produce a solid performance and provide a quality attacking outlet for the Irish province if given the opportunity. Haley must be all conquering tomorrow, he needs to up his game to the next level in the aerial and ball in hand stakes.

Half Back Game Management

Saracens are a quality side but Munster Rugby’s kicking game and trying to exploit space behind Maitland in particular could reap rewards. Maitland is a player of serious pace and attacking ability but at times can be exposed in defensive areas. The kick game exchanges need to focus on Maitland and it is up to Murray and Bleyendaal to execute the game plan at the right time to potentially identify the space behind Maitland to prosper. It is going to be a tough task but the rewards are there for Munster Rugby if they trust their kicking game at different stages.

Farrell needs to get involved early

Munster Rugby need to set the tone early, look to eek out an early lead and involve Chris Farrell early. The three quarter has the potential to create gain line breaks and allow colleagues space and time to impress.
Lozowski at thirteen is a quality ball player, his kicking game and game making will pose Munster Rugby problems but defensively can Munster Rugby turn the tables on the player? Chris Farrell becomes a huge weapon for Munster Rugby tomorrow. He could potentially create the gain line breaks required to setup the platform for good things to follow.

Conclusion

It is a game where Saracens will enter the contest as warm favorites. Munster Rugby must focus on themselves, focus on their strengths and trust their defensive setup which has got them to this point in the season. The management and players are fully aware of the performance level but I sense that this group have a massive performance in them. A dry track, a chance for redemption and passage to the final. Saracens have massive weapons of their own but Munster Rugby have progressed. The elements must combine tomorrow and I expect a huge performance from the men in red. All the best Munster! Leave it out on the pitch, no regrets tomorrow, play for each other and stand up and fight!

Heineken Champions Cup: Pool Phase Review

The cream has come to the top!

So that is the end of the pool phase of the Heineken Champions Cup for another year. A competition phase which on the final weekend did not create that excitement that we typically expect. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool phases and casts his eye further down the track (foolish or not) to end of March and the quarter final pairings.

Who impressed?

You cannot look past the top three seeds in the quarter finals. I thought they were the standout teams. Saracens look in the mood to go deep in this tourney and their performance last weekend minus Owen Farrell was a timely reminder to all opposition of their potency and squad depth. The pack is formidable. Itoje is running the show in the second row and his discipline is vastly improved in this campaign. They have put Glasgow Warriors to the sword twice in the pool and with another meeting at the end of March; the smart money is for a Saracens home win. Their balance and game management has been on point this season.

Racing 92 has been throwing the ball a bit this season? Their home form performance have been nothing short of sensational. Their ability to create such a high tempo game has exposed their pool opposition so far. Scarlets last weekend tried to stand toe to toe but were destroyed in a rampant third quarter cameo. Simon Zebo, Finn Russell have settled so well into the club and with a hardworking pack at the core; their fixture against Toulouse has fireworks writing all over it.

Leinster Rugby continue to rumble on in this tournament. Their opening night demolition of Wasps was incredible; their supporting running, offloading and set piece prowess with James Ryan at the heart of everything good in the engine room was the platform for what that has followed. Yes, there has been a loss on the road to Toulouse but that was an incredible contest. Leinster Rugby entertaining Ulster Rugby in the last eight of the competition. Player injuries coming out of the RBS 6 Nations could be a key factor here. Their squad depth was flexed in the last two rounds. Ross Byrne seamlessly stepped into fill Johnny Sexton’s shoes. Adam Byrne has been a revelation in the back three this season. Sean Cronin has become a marauding try scoring machine, equal on tries with Jacob Stockdale! The champions are not going away you know!

Progressing Nicely

I have to say that the progression in Edinburgh Rugby these last two seasons has been nothing short of superb. The job that Richard Cockerill and management have done with this team has been sensational. The manner in which Hardie was given his marching orders last season was a serious statement on how the management wanted their players to represent themselves and the club. There is a performance etiquette that needs to be delivered by the players who put on the jersey week in week out. Their pool performances looked on the outside to be daunting but they handled the threat posed by the juggernaut Montpellier and RC Toulon with ease. The front row performance last weekend in particular was excellent. Nel played with a freedom that I have not seen in the player before. His behind the legs past to Mata indicative of the confident that the prop is playing with at the moment. His front row colleagues destroyed Montpellier. Pierre Schoeman is a man mountain wrecking ball at scrum time. Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham coupled with the continued emergence of Blair Longhorn means that this is a side which deserves respect and have an excellent chance of semi-final progression.

Scope for improvement:

For Edinburgh Rugby to make to the last four, they will need to get past a Munster Rugby side who gutted their way through to the last eight of the competition yet again. An extremely tough pool for Munster Rugby starting from day one on that hurricane style day at Sandy Park. Munster Rugby critically took care of Gloucester Rugby and then had to deal with officiating incompetence in Castres. The team are battle hardened. The desire and determination to win is beyond reproach. The attacking side of the game continues to be inconsistent and exposed when teams pressure the side with their defensive line speed and flooding the breakdown area. The good news for Munster Rugby has been the performances of Joey Carbery who has bounced back well from that Castres road trip display. Tadhg Beirne continues to be a beast in the open and breakdown exchanges. Mike Haley solid under the high ball and Chris Farrell provided he remains injury free can provide go forward ball at the end of March. 50/50 game with Edinburgh. The scrum battle even right now looks a key battle and the battle of Mata vs. Stander will be worth the gate admission fee. A team who have scope to improve which is always good this time of the year.

Ulster Rugby must be applauded for the manner in which they came back to win at Welford Road last weekend. They were under the cosh for long periods of the contest but they hung in and with excellent back line talent in Baloucoune, Stockdale and Addison they got back into the game and never looked back. The pool phase was a good learning curve for Dan McFarland; his charges had to show resiliency after a heavy loss to Racing 92 but their reaction to beat Scarlets (home and away) was emphatic. A road trip to Dublin beckons but the attitude should be clear for Ulster Rugby. They should enter the fixture with minimal pressure; pundits will write them off and the side are well capable with their back line to pose Leinster Rugby issues. The forward pack will need to step up to a different level and the news of the injury to Iain Henderson is a worry. The emergence of Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore is a welcome boost for a side which struggled in the front row unit exchanges last season.

Toulouse were sneaky out yesterday. They realized that another try scored against Bath Rugby would mean a return trip to Dublin. You saw the mindset of the club management and players in yesterday’s second half display to Bath Rugby. They wanted no part in a Leinster Rugby rematch. They will take their chances to beat Racing 92 on the road; not an impossible task as the style of play adopted by Racing 92 will suit Toulouse and their off the cuff attacking approach to the game. It is great to see Toulouse back to the forefront of European Club Rugby. Their performance against Leinster Rugby at home was a timely reminder of how superb they can be with ball in hand. Medard continues to inspire those around them. The Leinster Rugby road trip loss exposed pack and defensive issues; needs to improve to realistically beat Racing 92 in the quarter finals.

Glasgow Warriors. Eighth seed. They have thank Edinburgh Rugby for their place in the playoffs. The Saracens losses exposed issues yet again in the pack set piece amid the typical attacking flair out wide. Adam Hastings has developed well in the half back position but their pack problems are a huge concern and I do not see much joy for them on the road again to Saracens. A team who for me have under achieved in this competition and with the likes of Stuart Hogg gone to Exeter Chiefs next season, the window for the Warriors to get into a semi-final / final of this competition looks more remote with each passing season.

Disappointments of the competition:

RC Toulon were a massive disappointment in this tournament this season. A team with vastly acquired talent but unable to string together cohesion anywhere on the park. The team ethos was missing in this tournament as soon as Newcastle Falcons beat them in the opening round. The white flag was raised against Edinburgh Rugby. Time RC Toulon started to focus on their homegrown talent and less on glamorous import acquisitions. RC Toulon need to look long and hard on their long term plans. Legacy built with Johnny Wilkinson is been eroded at a rate of knots.

Scarlets were one game away from making the European Cup final last season but they were nowhere near it this season. Injury crisis for sure played a part but the departures of the likes of Beirne, Barclay were more massive than first anticipated. Pivac and Jones leave for Wales at the end of the season; unsure on the talent recruitment policy at the club with managerial setup in limbo. Scarlets have a lovely style of play but they were put to sword far too often this season in this competition. A year of transition next season beckons for the club. Sad to see!

Leicester Tigers are descending into absolute anarchy. Their performance against Ulster Rugby last weekend typified their predicament. Dominant for long periods, unable to put opposition away and then defensive frailties exposed in quick time in the third quarter. The club need stability; make a decision and if Geordan Murphy is their man, stand by him for the long term. Matt O’Connor dismissal after one game this season is not a move typically seen by a club like Leicester Tigers. Things are not right at the club and I am not convinced that they will be getting back into this competition next season. Rebuild is the keyword!

Officiating inconsistency. The sheer inconsistent in officiating the breakdown and incidents where players are taken out in the air was further magnified in the last couple of rounds. The Castres vs. Munster Rugby fixture was deplorable; dark arts in full view but the officiating crew failed to impose their authority or the laws of the game. Other games fell foul of inconsistent officiating also. Breakdown is a joke at the moment. Players not staying on their feet. Players coming in from the side. Players sealing off the ball. Where is the fair contest? For a player to win a turnover at the breakdown these days, you need to be hit at least five times from different angles to get anything and still stay on your feet.

Heineken Champions Cup – Round 4 Predictions

Round 4 – Playoff dreams will be made or shattered this weekend

The decisive round four of the Heineken Champions Cup; a round where several teams will fall by the wayside with a key loss. Other sides will take advantage of sides who are already out the back door due to results last weekend.

The wannabes will be whittled down by the end of this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick provides his verdict on the fixtures scheduled. Gloucester Rugby and a bonus point try win (15 point spread) against a massively under-strength Exeter Chiefs outfit looks to too good to refuse. 

Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 3

Saracens look strong

This has the potential to be a superb pool full of inventive play and bonus point try performances. A pool where Saracens line up against reigning European Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues, Lyon and a Glasgow Warriors who this season need to stand up and deliver in this competition. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool.

Saracens looking to make amends

Lions tour. Injuries. Lack of form all contributed to Saracens only barely getting to the last eight of the competition last season. They were a team condemned heading to the Aviva Stadium to face a relentless Leinster Rugby and lessons from last season have being learned. 

Saracens in this pool looked a prime competition contender. Minimal weak points from the pack, half-backs into the back line. I am looking forward to see how Jamie George evolves in the competition this season; his set piece and mobility will be to the fore. Maro Itoje in the lock position is a supreme athlete, interesting to see how his discipline has evolved since last season where he was feeling the wrath of match officials more times than not. 

Wigglesworth and Farrell form a formidable half-back partnership and then you add the promising Lozsowski in the mix, competition is strong in this area of the park. The back line contains the experience Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch who will look to unleash the likes of Alex Goode and Liam Williams into the line at a regular rate. 

Saracens start their European crusade this season with a tricky road trip to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun. Can Glasgow Warriors prove themselves in European Cup action? A terribly disappointing effort last season and Dave Rennie will need to call on Adam Hastings to be the x-factor for his side as Finn Russell has departed for life at Racing 92. 

Glasgow Warriors will provide expansive passage of play from deep but question marks abound on the front five when facing slick, efficient counterparts. They were found wanting last season against the likes of Exeter Chiefs, Leinster Rugby and Montpellier and I am not sure if it has improved to the extent required to compete with the likes of Saracens. 

The side are a superb Guinness Pro 14 outfit but there are lingering questions on when this side will evolve and be considered as a contender in European Cup competition. The opening fixture to Saracens will answer those questions quickly. 

Cardiff Blues come into the competition on the back of progressive form in Guinness Pro 14 action. A home win against Munster Rugby has set morale soaring. Evans, Anscombe can control games and with the likes of Halaholo, Lane, Harries out wide to score tries; it is a real potent attacking edge. Furthermore, an abrasive pack led by the likes of Turnbull, Navidi, Nick Williams will mean that no pool opponent will get an easy game from the Welsh side. 

Lyon. The debutantes in this competition are stacked with squad talent but whether European fare is their priority (skeptical) remains up in the air. Doussain and Beauxis provide a formidable experience half back experience and with a solid pack and back line, the side at home will be a match for anyone but as European Challenge Cup experience has shown, the side’s mindset when in Europe can be questionable. 

Verdict:

Saracens are the form side in this pool; their domestic form is 6/6 and their toughest conceivable game could this weekend in Glasgow. If they safely negotiate this fixture, Saracens could run the rule over all other pool opponents before Christmas and safely secure a pool winner berth. 

Question marks on the other sides in this pool. The mini-league between these sides could see teams potentially cancelling each other with home wins. Glasgow Warriors could nick a playoff best runner up but I need convincing. 

European Rugby Champions Cup: Leinster Rugby vs. Saracens Reflections

On the day that Leinster Rugby paid a fitting tribute to the service of retiring player Jamie Heaslip prior to this contest, Leinster Rugby strode into the last four of this competition with a performance full of craft, nous and work rate. Hawkeye Sidekick bows his hat to appreciate the effort.

Energy On Point

The Leinster Rugby loss to Ospreys in Guinness Pro 14 action a week prior to this fixture threw up a couple of questions for me. Was the performance which lacked intensity and work rate from Leinster Rugby a prelude to this European Cup fixture?

No need to worry as Leinster Rugby’s first team charges came back in and produced a powerful performance. This was such a compelling performance for a number of levels from Leinster Rugby. Playing against the breeze in the opening period. Leinster Rugby absorbed Saracens pack advances and were clinical when the try scoring opportunity arose as well as the two penalties presented during this half.

The front five efforts in this opening period extremely on point. The front row of Healy, Cronin and Furlong provided a platform in the set piece but their work rate around the fringes and open play were far superior to the Saracens front row unit. Furlong in particular smashing any Saracens to the ground with interest. The work rate never ceased for the whole game.

Leinster fast uptempo game plan too much for Saracens

The opening exchanges gave us a glimpse of how this contest would go. Saracens trying to bludgeon their way to the try line while Leinster Rugby employed the chop tackle to full effect to negate the big ball carriers in the Saracens pack. Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje struggling to make an impression with ball in hand. The tactic from Leinster Rugby forced Saracens to change tact even before they had a platform created and a lead established.

There were questions why Leinster Rugby acquired James Lowe last year from some quarters? There was a multitude of players in the squad (Irish born) who could fill the wing position but it was games like yesterday where Lowe comes into his own and was signed for.

James Lowe was simply outstanding yesterday. The New Zealander scored a superb try and his quick passing exchange with Isa Nacewa who was also sensational setting Garry Ringrose free to score Leinster’s first try. The try was borne out of relentless efficient clear out work at ruck time to setup a high tempo game for McGrath and Sexton to execute. The opening try came from these facets of play and Saracens had no answers to the speed of pass coming at them on the outside.

Nice blend of youth and experience with Leinster

This was a performance which should strike fear to all other teams still left in this competition. Leinster Rugby’s leaders delivered but the youth in the ranks were also key contributors too. James Ryan in the second row was excellent throughout, constantly putting up the hand with his ball carrying duties and his tackle count / work rate were sublime.

Itoje struck a frustrated figure and his indiscipline was borne out of the fact that Ryan was in the ascendancy. Ryan was ably assisted by Devin Toner who collectively called an efficient line out performance with Cronin. Fardy at six was abrasive throughout and provided quality line out options throughout.

Dan Leavy’s profile continues to soar; the seven was a wrecking ball in the breakdown battle and after Ryan’s quick hands identifying space inside to cross over for the decisive second try of the contest for Leinster Rugby. The ability of Ryan and Leavy to engineer the score, realizing the space and the lack of defensive support from Itoje in the line was key; exciting play.

Luke McGrath continues to impress at nine. His kick game was on point and his passing from the ruck to Sexton gave the out-half the time required to unleash his three quarters. Nacewa was ridiculously good again, his versatility and adaptability to fill seamlessly in the Leinster back line seen again yesterday. Leadership, defensive nous and ball carried incredibly well.

Ringrose gave Barritt and Bosch the run around at times from an attacking perspective and his defensive solidity meant that Saracens primary go forward ball carrier Barritt was reduced to a peripheral figure in this contest. The fact that Saracens key ball carriers Vunipola, Itoje and Barritt were negated in the opening period that Saracens had to adopt a more expansive game plan in the second half was always going to yield unforced errors.

Leinster Rugby’s thorough professional performance was doing a Saracens on Saracens. Saracens were forced to chase the game from very early and the game was up for the reigning champions well before the final whistle. Leinster Rugby could have won by more truth be told but they were content to consolidate in the fourth quarter. Emphatic win!

Saracens physicality tactic misses the mark

The ruffling up of Sexton by Saracens was no surprise but the tactic did not yield any success. Wigglesworth on another day should have being sent to the sin bin, late hit on Sexton in full view of Garces who only issued a penalty. It was not the only incident of this nature but Sexton continued to play his game and Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard as Saracens’ penalty count started to increase.

As the game wore on, it looked to me that Saracens pack were increasingly getting frustrated and unsettled as they realized that Leinster Rugby’s pack were holding them at bay and allowing a platform to be built. Itoje’s penalty count on the day was evidence of this; indiscipline after the opening quarter.

Leinster march on ominously

The performance level from Leinster Rugby was at a different level to anything that was produced this weekend. Leinster Rugby’s performance with or without the ball has issued a massive call out to Scarlets, Racing 92 and Munster Rugby to try and beat them.

Their defensive coverage all game was on point. There is no weak point in this side and when you consider that the likes of Sean O’Brien and Jordan Larmour will be back for the semi-final, it is an exciting prospect for Leinster fans to look forward to. A fixture which Leinster Rugby won with minimal fuss, no drama, the game was over after the third quarter. Mission accomplished. Roll on three weeks!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Quarter Final Predictions

Easter weekend has finally arrived. The European Rugby Champions Cup quarter final action kicks off in Wales where Scarlets and La Rochelle will do battle. Easter Saturday has an intriguing battle with injury ravaged Munster Rugby facing the squad depth of Toulon. Easter Sunday has the potential to be epic with ASM Clermont hoping that home advantage will get them over the line against a rejuvenated Racing 92 while Leinster and Saracens battle it out in a heavyweight tussle at the Aviva Stadium. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to predict some winners from these tantalizing fixtures.

This on paper has offloading central written all over the fixture but given the inclement weather conditions forecast, the dynamics of this fixture have changed. Scarlets front five need to set the platform early; huge onus on the likes of Lee, Owens, Evans, Beirne to achieve this so as to provide quality possession for their half backs to unleash their exciting back field.

Scott Williams for me plays such a crucial role for this side. His pace and line break ability provides the nous to unlock any defense. Along with Hadleigh Parkes, the three quarter partnership is an excellent unit. Parkes provides superb defensive awareness and a good open field kicking game. Steff Evans is a try scoring machine. Potency aplenty.

La Rochelle have had a mixed couple of months; their form has dipped since the start of the year and struggled over the line to advance to the last eight of this competition after quite an assured, exciting start. Massive injury blows with La Rochelle with All Blacks flanker Victor Vito (calf) and France centre Geoffrey Doumayrou (knee) both ruled out. Another All Black, second row Jason Eaton, is also sidelined.

Scarlets are quite strong favorites to advance here given that team news but La Rochelle’s game plan may switch from expansive to hitting the trenches with the pack. The weather conditions have prompted Wayne Pivac to go for a six (forwards) / two (backs) split on the bench.

Kicking game needs to be on point from the hosts as La Rochelle do have exciting back field options themselves. Aguillon and Botia will relish open field to run into provided if Scarlets kick chase is not at the standard required.

Hopefully the weather does not play its part as this fixture has excitement written all over it. Scarlets after an even first quarter to express themselves in the second half to win by seven points. La Rochelle are a danger but the injuries to Vito and Doumayrou look fatal to their hopes.

Thomond Park sold out signs appeared on Monday; no ticket in sight for this eagerly anticipated encounter. Munster Rugby have injury concerns aplenty but the expectation is that Zebo, Conway and Rory Scannell will be fit to line out for this contest. The injuries to Keith Earls and Chris Farrell in the back field are a blow but it is an opportunity for the likes of Arnold and Wooton to take and they will not let the side down.

Toulon come into this contest high with confidence. Their 49-0 home win to ASM Clermont provided ample evidence of their capabilities. The front five never let their opposition to settle or create any platform. They mauled effectively and with the battering ram Basteraud a prominent ball carrier, tries quickly ensued. Fekitoa was immense with his ball carries.

How do Munster Rugby win this contest? Effective game management and kicking game particularly in exit strategy. Munster cannot let Toulon camp in their twenty-two for long periods so the onus is on Murray and Keatley to take charge and kick well.

The back row contest intrigues me. Will Munster Rugby throw a curve ball and name Conor Oliver as the seven? A superb grappler in the breakdown, Oliver’s mobility could be decisive. O’Donoghue, Copeland and O’Callaghan obviously come into the reckoning as well.

Toulon’s game plan will be interesting. I suspect that they will try to run the ball through Munster Rugby at the weekend but I think Munster Rugby’s defensive line speed, conditioning and mobility across the park may be the difference here. Toulon on the road have being a pale shadow of the team at home this season. Toulon to lose composure and the penalty battle ultimately.

The atmosphere will be electric on Saturday. Nigel Owens officiating the game adds to the occasion. Munster Rugby know their backs are against the wall and if they can expose Toulon’s back three defensively in the kicking game, there is no question that Munster Rugby can win. It is with this hope that Munster Rugby emerge victorious after a titanic struggle. Munster by three points.

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ASM Clermont look vulnerable here. A home fixture for ASM Clermont should be a nailed on win but this season has seen ASM Clermont really struggle for form and consistency. The side last weekend were an embarrassment, shut down, out fought, out thought. The tackle completion rate of 67% speaks volumes; the side were not at it last weekend.

Soul searching week in Clermont which Racing 92 will enter the game in relatively good spirits. Racing 92 have the pack to win this battle and with an exciting back field containing Teddy Thomas, all is primed for a superb performance on the road.

Clermont will surely bounce back and have a reaction from last weekend’s road trip mauling but this side are a pale shadow of the side which trounced Saracens at the back end of last year. Injuries have certainly taken their toll and has created cohesion issues in various units.

Racing 92 have the fortitude and leadership required here to absorb the home side’s early promise to win this tie going away. The half back battle will be interesting. Lopez and Parra need to dominate game management but with Machenaud and Carter potentially in opposition, cannot see that happening.

The Racing 92 pack looks abrasive and with Donnacha Ryan continuing to produce consistently high performances, there is a road trip win here for Racing 92. The prize is motivation enough; a home semi-final berth. Racing 92 to upset ASM Clermont who will need to wait yet another year for European Cup triumph. Racing 92 to win in a cagey affair; penalty kicking contest and win by six points.

This is the fixture of the weekend. The key question for me is how much do Leinster Rugby have in the tank? After a tasking international fixture window, the fringe squad players looked flat against Ospreys last weekend. It makes team selection easy for Cullen and Lancaster (not ideal) this weekend as they have to bring back all the Irish internationals. No fringe players put the hand up for selection which was disappointing.

Was the Ospreys performance last weekend a case of an off day or does it suggest fatigue in the squad? If fatigue is creeping in, it is coming at the business end of the season when you do not want it to happen. There is no better side to exploit fatigue and weakness in conditioning than Saracens.

Saracens bring a formidable side to the Aviva Stadium. Solid, abrasive pack but has the finesse out wide to finish off teams with excellent tries. Aviva Stadium is a happy hunting ground for Saracens. Last season, they did a professional job on Munster Rugby. They quietened the crowd, nullified Munster Rugby’s game plan and won with a bit to spare. The venue has good memories.

Leinster Rugby are an excellent side too. Their pack will be abrasive with the front row of Furlong, Cronin and Healy looking to probe at set piece. The second row and back options are excellent. Toner, Ryan and Fardy will provide solid line out options. The back row options of Leavy, Conan and Murphy are on point. Expect massive collisions!

The half back battle will be intriguing. McGrath / Sexton vs. Wigglesworth / Farrell. The kicking game is going to be superb viewing. Both units possess excellent kicking games and will decide which team emerges victorious. Saracens will look for Leinster indiscipline; look to work the scoreboard. 3,6,9.,12 and if that happens, Leinster Rugby are chasing the game, the perfect setup for Saracens.

The back lines possess serious threats as well. Liam Williams provides added values with ball in hand for the Saracens outfit. Garry Ringrose at thirteen is coming into this side relatively fresh, expect some serious line breaks from the player but it will be tough when facing the likes of Barritt.

50/50 game here. Leinster Rugby to summon the energy to get over the line in an epic tussle. However, if Leinster Rugby’s Irish players do not get to the pitch of the game early, this is a game that could conceivably get away from Leo Cullen’s men pretty quickly. Edge of the seat viewing. I cannot wait!

 

 

 

 

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!