The Champions and Challenge Cup semi-finals were decided at the weekend and left fans either elated or crestfallen. Here are the game's talking points...
Saracens out-Munster, Munster
Over the years, we’ve witnessed the irrepressible red wave overcome lesser teams, yet no matter how many big ball carriers they sent down Saracens’ channel, Munster could not puncture the aggressive defensive line, held firm by Maro Itoje, Vincent Koch, Billy and Mako Vunipola and Michael Rhodes. By the time CJ Stander burrowed over, the clock was tipping into the red and the result was beyond doubt after 26-unanswered points.
Rassie Erasmus, who has seen such progress this season, gave fans reason to cheer after committing his immediate future to Thomond Park but he was both magnanimous and pragmatic in defeat, “the reality at this stage is that Saracens are 15 to 20 points better than us. Hopefully in a year’s time we’ll be closer.”
All hail the best club in Europe
This is Saracens’ third European Cup final in four years, and while we hailed Toulon and their trio of trophies, similar fulsome praise should go Sarries’ way if they manage the same feat. Many have scoffed at their modest travelling support, but with continual success, the expanding supporter-base will come.
The age-profile at Sarries bodes well. All six of their Lions have their best years ahead of them; Itoje, 22, Billy Vunipola, 24, Jamie George 26, Owen Farrell 25, George Kruis 27 and Mako Vunipola 26, and with another, Liam Williams, on his way, the good times promise to continue. Vunipola summed it up in a post-match interview, “Everybody seems to hate us but if you’re part of the squad you’ll love it and won’t want to leave.” As the squad head to Barcelona to recharge, it’s hard to argue with that.
Gloucester hold up their side of the bargain…
The Challenge Cup organisers must have been relishing an all-West Country final in Edinburgh but alas, it wasn’t to be, however, Gloucester, so often a side that has a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, dug in against a La Rochelle outfit that stands atop of the Top 14, for a gutsy 16-14 victory.
They may have thank Brock James’ errant kicking boots, sending a key conversion and penalty wide of the posts, but Glaws were worthy of their victory, with Billy Burns scampering away for a breakaway try a highlight. It was enough to send their loyal fans giddy. Feeling light headed for another reason, was Richard Hibbard, who had to take a blow to the crown jewels for his trouble. Stade Francais await.
…while Bath are left to rue costly mistakes
Bath showed admirable resolve to overcome a 18-6 deficit against Stade Francais, with three tries in eight minutes in the last quarter – the pick of them Semesa Rokoduguni’s power fend and sublime finish to start the comeback. When they went 25-18 up with nine minutes to go, a famous comeback seemed assured, yet a break from Djibril Camara down the flank set-up Aussie lock Hugh Pyle to gallop over the line from distance and Plisson levelled the scores.
George Ford’s short restart saw Stade regaining all-important field territory and ended with a Plisson drop-goal. Ford had a chance to level the scores but pushed his late, late kick wide of the right-hand uprights as the game was lost. It gives Stade – whose very future was in doubt last month – the chance to add silverware after a tumultuous season.
Ringrose forcing comparisons with O’Driscoll
Much of the chat at the Lions squad announcement was about Garry Ringrose’s huge potential, with Andy Farrell commenting that in six months, Leinster and Ireland could have quite a player on their hands. Shorten that to less than six days, for the brilliant 60m individual score from the young Dubliner was enough to leave many commentators wondering if a place had to be found for the 22-year-old.
With Leinster 21-12 down, Ringrose ducked under a tackle, stepped Damian Penaud and Damien Chouly before dummying a flailing Scott Spedding and outpacing the covering Clermont defence – in a not dissimilar score to BOD’s at the Gabba in 2001 for the Lions. At the merest hint of a hamstring tweak in midfield, Ringrose will surely be called upon.
Les Jaunards march on Murrayfield
Any old romantics will surely not begrudge one of rugby’s great club sides, Clermont, on embarking on their Holy Grail of a Champions Cup winning medal, after two final losses, and countless semi-final heartbreaks.
The vibrant yellow-clad fans, saw an adopted-Englishman David Strettle, set up the first try with a delicate chip, before he rounded Dan Leavy on the touchline to score – in front of a watching Stuart Lancaster – before Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra penalties guided them home. A sloppy first-half left Leinster with too much to do, leaving Clermont to ponder whether this can be their year?