Jacob Whitehead reflects on a West Country double in the two European finals
Six talking points from the European finals
What a bumper weekend of European rugby. Two games filled with early tries, hot-stepping back-lines, niggle and spite. Bristol and Exeter lifted their first-ever European honours, taking the South-West back to rugby’s summit.
Here are five talking points from the crowning glory of this year’s European action…
Luke Cowan-Dickie strengthens England case
Luke Cowan-Dickie had a sensational opening period in the Heineken Champions Cup final in a performance that will intensify calls for him to start for England in coming weeks.
He scored from the back of Exeter’s first attacking lineout, bulldozing traffic like a Cornish Godzilla, crashing over and keeping the contents of his stomach inside on this occasion.
A word also for counterpart Camille Chat, who showed some pretty impressive power of his own in a carbon-copy second-half drive.
Back to Cowan-Dickie, and the Exeter hooker was unlucky not to create another for Jonny Gray with a lovely flick out the back. His ability to tap-and-go played its own part in Sam Simmonds’s try, the defence sucked into Cowan-Dickie’s orbit like flotsam around a small planet.
With DCL scoring for one England team, is it time for LCD to star for another?
Racing start stalls quickly
Racing 92 started well. Honestly. Well, for five minutes at least, forcing Exeter to miss four tackles in the opening exchanges (probably more than Jonny Gray has missed in his entire career) and speeding through rare holes in the Chiefs defence.
Then the wheels came off, and it was Teddy Iribaren at the centre of it. We’ve always known that Iribaren has a certain insouciance – but he was brilliant in his last Champions Cup final against Leinster two years ago.
Possibly with his own brilliance in mind, the first 15 minutes saw him take a more laissez-faire approach to ball security than a drunk juggler, kicking the ball dead, getting caught out from a quick lineout and flicking the ball madly infield all within a five-minute period. He was lucky that a Jonny Hill fumble didn’t lead to another Exeter try.
There are some teams you can get away with this against. There are others you can’t. We all know what camp Exeter fall into. The Chiefs had 75% of territory after 15 minutes and a 14-0 lead – achieved despite Racing having made 120 metres to Exeter’s 30 in this period.
There’s playing your own game and there’s playing into opposition hands – could Racing have sped away with the title if not for that crazy first 20 minutes?
A tale of two passes: a Parisian novel
“That Finn Russell pass, sheeesh.” A phrase to define the day.
Finn Russell lives by the sword, Finn Russell dies by the sword, Finn Russell walks on razors in bare feet. A man touched by the angel and the devil, usually at the same time.
Few games have shown this more than Saturday’s final. His ball for Simon Zebo’s first try was less cerebral than celestial, the Huw Jones pass 2.0. It was hanging in the air, begging to be intercepted… until it wasn’t, the defence was split, his side scored.
And then, later, Russell’s pass hung in the air, begging to be intercepted… until it was, the defence was split, the other side scored. A head in hands moment for the mercurial ten.
But in a game as crazy as this, against a defence as organised as Exeter – are you really telling me there’s a European attacker you’d rather have? In a glorious, crazy, swashbuckling final, Russell’s sword carved its lifeblood.
MORE ON THE EUROPEAN FINALS
Chiefs are crowned European champions after beating Racing…
A journey with the sweetest ending
Edinburgh, Scarlets, Harlequins, Racing 92, Lyon, Exeter. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne has played for six clubs in the past three seasons, even turning out on six occasions for Racing during last year’s World Cup.
Exeter have always had a surfeit of nines, with Will Chudley, Stu Townsend, Nic White, and both Maunder brothers strutting their stuff in the scrum-half shirt over the last few years. Enter Hidalgo-Clyne.
Scrum-halves aren’t meant to win turnovers. The star Scotsman was meant to be Stuart Hogg; it was meant to be Jonny Gray.
But hey, rip that up, Exeter weren’t meant to be able to win a European Cup! It looked in doubt late on, Racing camped on the Exeter line as it was defended by only14 men. Antonie Claassen produced a huge carry over the line but was rolled onto his back and on latched Hidalgo-Clyne, a clinging limpet, winning the most important turnover in his club’s history. Game over.
Bristol acquisitions show them the way home
What a first try, what a final try. Bristol ended their Challenge Cup semi-final with an outrageous piece of handling from Semi Radradra and they began the final the same way. It took the Bears only 15 seconds to score, it took their star man only three seconds to justify his price tag.
Taking a slightly overhit kick-off, the Fijian centre showed wrists snappier than a school of piranhas to send Alapati Leiua away down the left, before popping back up to put Harry Randall over the line.
Yet Bristol were in trouble after 50 minutes. They were 19-13 down, they were wasteful in the Toulon half, but they had their two lockdown loanees on the field.
Ben Earl, a deserved Man of the Match, won a series of crucial penalties to allow Callum Sheedy to haul his team back level.
And for the second straight European game, Max Malins provided the match-winning touch, hopscotching through the defence on a whim to put Bristol into a lead they would not relinquish.
It would be unfair to put the Bristol win all on their summer signings. Harry Thacker, Joe Joyce and Randall were superb too, while the whole squad took their performances up a notch after Malins’s score. Yet in finals we remember moments, and a recent sprinkling of stardust would ultimately provide the glint on the Challenge Cup trophy.
Watershed moment for Toulon
Look at the Toulon squad – Sergio Parisse, Charles Ollivon and Eben Etzebeth are all international veterans. Bristol’s starting XV, with all due respect to the Test-match exploits of Kyle Sinckler and Semi Radradra, had nowhere the same pedigree.
They say you need to lose a big game to win a big game – not so here. Bristol showed the nous of the veteran heavyweight, scrapping in the right areas, knowing what fights to pick.
Toulon did not play badly here but the game just seemed to show the confusing demographic of their squad – the dictionary definition of a team in transition.
On the one hand they’re filled with bright young sparks like fly-half Louis Carbonel, prop Jean-Baptiste Gros and impressive full-back Gervais Cordin. But on the flipside, figures like Parisse and Etzebeth are drawing towards the end of their careers.
Their best touches in this game came from the younger contingent – Carbonel’s impish darts, Cordin’s composed defence. However, when the game was on the edge and experience needed to tell, the elder statesmen failed to rise to the occasion.
Carbonel, who was red-hot for 60 minutes, but cold for the final quarter does need to take some responsibility. But Toulon have made a habit of big names winning big European games; the fact they didn’t feels significant.
The spine of this squad is young, sparkling, and French. Is it time for the rest of the team to follow?
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