The European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup semi-finals were always bound to produce some heroes and villains. Who thrived under the pressure of knockout rugby and who went weak at the knees?
The Maro and Mako show
Saracens march on into the European Champions Cup final, having suffocated Wasps’ challenge with a 24-17 victory in a brutal contest and their leading lights were Man of the Match Maro Itoje and his England team-mate Mako Vunipola.
Saracens had a lot of defending to do and Itoje made 15 tackles – a figure topped only by Owen Farrell, more of whom later – while Vunipola stopped defenders in their tracks 14 times.
The prop also made inroads in attack, making 14 carries, while Itoje’s other most eye-catching contributions came at lineout time, where he secured four of the Saracens throws and, more importantly, stole two from Joe Launchbury.
Saracens had only been 8-7 up at the break but early in the second half Mako and Maro both forced Wasps to concede a penalty and Farrell’s kicks took the lead out to 14-7, giving Sarries a bit of breathing space.
Vunipola later gave away a penalty which led to Wasps’ 75th minute try, while Itoje blotted his copybook by hanging onto the boot of Simon McIntyre, which led to the Wasp kicking him in the head, but both Saracens forwards did far more good than bad.
Owen Williams didn’t start Leicester’s Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 but he was called into service when Freddie Burns limped off with an ankle injury after 37 minutes and his first task was to kick a 40-metre penalty. He immediately switched into the right mindset and found the target to bring Leicester back from 10-3 down to 10-6.
Williams landed another even more impressive kick in the final minute of the game. Telusa Veainu had scored a try which brought Leicester back to 19-14 down, so the conversion was vital but time was very much of the essence. Williams placed the ball on the kicking tee a few metres in from the right-hand touchline, ran back to his mark, briefly composed himself and slotted it between the sticks just 22 seconds after Veainu had grounded the ball. Who says kickers need a minute?
The pride of Paris
Racing’s 19-16 win over Leicester was a little more comfortable than the scoreline suggests and the standout performers for the Parisien side were No 8 Chris Masoe, full-back Brice Dulin, Man of the Match Maxime Machenaud and outside-half Dan Carter.
Masoe was prominent in attack and defence, making 18 carries and 23 tackles. Dulin caused the Leicester defence problems, covering 81 metres in eight carries and beating three defenders. Machenaud scored the try which put Racing on the front foot in the first two minutes, capitalising on a break by Joe Rokocoko, and Carter kicked three penalties and one conversion, made 16 tackles and only blotted his copybook by missing a simple drop-goal.
Harry Thacker had another eye-catching match for Leicester Tigers. The hooker hit his jumpers at 12 out of 13 lineouts, made a superb try-saving tackle on Maxime Machenaud as the scrum-half attempted to dive over in the left-hand corner in the 48th minute and then, five minutes later, produced the most sublime offload out of the back of his left hand as he was tackled just outside his own 22, finding Peter Betham whose run ultimately resulted in a penalty for Leicester.
Thacker only got into the Leicester side this season because Tom Youngs is injured, but he has grabbed his chance with both hands and will be tough to shift now he’s in the No 2 shirt.
Meyer leads Dragons fightback
Carl Meyer scored one try and created another in the Dragons’ European Challenge Cup semi-final against Montpellier. The French side were the heavy favourites before kick-off but their Welsh visitors refused to be brushed aside and did not concede a try until the 60th minute.
Montpellier were then 22-0 up but the Dragons hit back when full-back Meyer ran out of defence, broke a tackle and found Taulupe Faletau, who skilfully passed to Hallam Amos and the wing crossed the line for the try.
Meyer scorched in for a score of his own in the 78th minute to bring the final score to a respectable 22-12.
Harlequins won their Challenge Cup semi-final more comfortably, beating Grenoble 30-6 at the Stoop. Some of the credit for their victory goes to Jamie Roberts, who cut a superb line through the defence to score Quins’ first try, and to Nick Evans, who came off the bench and almost immediately dinking the ball delicately through the Grenoble defensive line and chased it through to touch down under the posts.
Heriots are celebrating after retaining their BT Premiership crown in Scotland thanks to a 29-26 win at Ayr in the final. Charlie Simpson scored two tries for Heriots and they have secured a trophy treble this season as they have already won the BT Charity Shield and the BT Cup.
Wasps replacement prop Simon McIntyre earned himself a spell in the sin-bin after 68 minutes of their semi-final against Saracens when he kicked Maro Itoje in the head. The Saracens lock was hanging onto McIntyre’s left foot at a ruck and, after trying to shake himself free, the Wasp kicked out and connected with Itoje’s head. It was not an especially forceful contact, but any kick aimed at the head has to be punished. Interestingly, referee Roman Poite said he would have given a penalty against Itoje, but reversed it because of the kick. McIntyre was lucky the colour of the card wasn’t red (and on Monday he was cited for the offence), but while he was off the pitch Saracens scored from a driving maul, which he might have been able to help bring to a halt.
Harlequins prop Joe Marler also put a foot out of place, kicking out at the head of Grenoble hooker Arnaud Heguy after the two had a brief altercation on the ground during their Challenge Cup semi-final on Friday evening. Marler struck him with his shin as he trotted away from the contact area and was lucky that referee John Lacey only awarded a penalty and a verbal warning. However, Marler was cited on Monday and so could face further punishment in the coming days.
Saracens went all-out to defeat Wasps and claim a place in the European Champions Cup final, but two or their more volatile characters – Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton – took things a little too far on a few occasions.
First, Ashton’s slight shoulder-charge on Frank Halai as they chased a loose ball over the line early in the game led to Duncan Taylor’s try being disallowed, as Halai would probably have tidied up the loose ball if Ashton hadn’t knocked him off balance.
With 47 minutes on the clock, Farrell was penalised for a head high tackle on Jimmy Gopperth, then three minutes later the fly-half hurtled head-first into a tackle on Dan Robson. The scrum-half was bending down as the contact came in, so Farrell was unlucky to end up colliding with his head, but the challenge was still a bit reckless and he was cited for it on Monday. While Farrell ended up with a cut around his right ear and a yellow card for his pains, Robson was knocked out and had to be stretchered off.
In the last ten minutes of the game, Ashton handed Wasps 50 metres of territory which could have been crucial. Farrell knocked the ball on in his own half and, from an offside position, Ashton booted the ball into touch. Referee Roman Poite gave a penalty and Wasps had a lineout in the Saracens’ half to attack from, instead of a scrum deep in their own half.
Finally, in the last minute of the game, when Joe Simpson and Will Fraser were indulging in a little grappling, Ashton raced up to get involved.
Saracens will need to be at their best to beat Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final and both Farrell and Ashton will need to turn down the heat on their contributions just a touch if they are to stay on the field for 80 minutes.
Just the ticket?
How sad to see a total of around 15,000 empty seats at the two Champions Cup semi-final venues. Quite why only 16,820 Saracens and Wasps fans made it to Reading’s Madejski Stadium for their teams’ clash on Saturday is a mystery, given that for their last Premiership home games (excluding Saracens’ trip to Wembley) they had a combined total crowd of over 27,000. Were the ticket prices too steep?
The 8,000 empty seats at Nottingham’s City Ground are slightly more understandable, as only a few hundred fans travelled from Paris to cheer on Racing so the bulk of the 22,148 at the game had driven up the M1 from nearby Leicester.
For fans to make a long journey, involving an overnight stay, they really need a lot more notice than the two weeks which passed between the Champions Cup quarter and semi-finals. The organisers must create a longer gap between the knockout rounds, and they must also take a look at the ticket pricing policy to see if that had an impact.
Oh no, Owens
I don’t think Nigel Owens has ever been among my Sinners before, but he’s here today after the Leicester v Racing semi-final.
His biggest mistake in the game came after 76 minutes when he stopped Juan Imhoff completing a breakaway try as he thought the Racing wing had knocked on a pass from Peter Betham to Manu Tuilagi. However, when Owens examined the replays on the big screen to see if the knock-on had been deliberate, he realised there had, in fact, not been any knock-on at all.
To his credit, Owens apologised immediately and repeatedly to Racing for what had been a genuine mistake, but he was lucky that his error did not cost them the match as they hung on to win 19-16.
Earlier in the game Owens had penalised Chris Masoe for a high tackled on Graham Kitchener, then in the second half he penalised Kitchener for grabbing Eddy Ben Arous around his neck to clear him away from a breakdown. In both cases the players were lucky not to be sin-binned.
Owens, of course, got most things right but we are so used to him getting all the big calls spot on that he has to be among the Sinners this week.
Leicester have no one but themselves to blame for their narrow loss to Racing as they made no fewer than 15 handling errors. Almost every time the Tigers made a promising break, they knocked the ball on and handed the initiative back to Racing. One classic example of this came after 56 minutes when they used a clever lineout move, sending Ben Youngs through the middle of the line about 30 metres out on the left, but Tom Croft dropped the pass which then came his way and Racing were off the hook. Leicester made nine visits to the Racing 22 before the finally scored a try late in the game. If they had been more clinical under pressure, the result would have been different.