Analysis and photos from the European Champions and Challenge Cup finals
That’s it – the first season of the new format of European rugby is over. Gloucester lifted the Challenge Cup on Friday night by beating Edinburgh 19-13 in the final at the Stoop and thus earn a place in the Champions Cup play-offs. At Twickenham the following day, Toulon made history by winning a third straight European title as they beat Clermont 24-18 in an all-French Champions Cup final. Here’s what we learnt from the two games…
FINALS NEED MAGIC MOMENTS
Sharp intakes of breath, whoops of delight, eyes wide in astonishment. Rugby needs moments that cause exactly that reaction and the two European finals delivered them.
At Twickenham in the Champions Cup final, it was Nick Abendanon and Drew Mitchell who had the crowd in raptures. Midway through the second half Abendanon collected Bryan Habana’s kick, cut a fine angle, chipped over the Toulon defence, collected the ball and scored under the posts. Individual class.
Ten minutes later, however, Abendanon was one of a six Clermont defenders who Mitchell hopped, skipped and jumped around to score the decisive try for Toulon.
The Challenge Cup was not short of attacking intent either and mention must be made of Jonny May. His searing break past Andries Strauss set up a try for Gloucester skipper Billy Twelvetrees and he was only denied a score himself following another superb break when Cornell du Preez managed to fell him with a tap tackle.
Friday’s night Challenge Cup final was billed as a head-to-head between two rivals for the Scotland No 9 shirt – Greig Laidlaw and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. It was an even battle for the most part, but Laidlaw’s nous came to the fore in the last ten minutes.
After Bill Meakes had been sent off, Laidlaw, along with Billy Twelvetrees, managed the game superbly. Edinburgh were chasing a winning try but as they attacked in the 22 Hidalgo-Clyne failed to scan the defence, passed right and his team-mate was wrapped up by Matt Kvesic. Penalty Gloucester. From that point on, Laidlaw directed his troops in masterful fashion – they may not have made much ground but they kept the ball and closed out the game.
The value of experience was again in evidence at Twickenham, Toulon locks Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams defying Old Father Time with their performances. The old dogs have also learnt a few new tricks, with slick offloads now as crucial as their big hits.
In contrast, Camille Lopez’s decision to put in a cross-kick as Clermont attacked deep in Toulon territory in the closing minute was naïve. You can’t win a game without the ball – and as the kick landed into Bryan Habana’s hands Clermont’s dream died.
NO FIX FOR LOOSE KICKS
Phil Burleigh put two consecutive restarts directly into touch in the second half of the Challenge Cup final, gifting Gloucester possession and territory. Clermont’s replacement scrum-half Ludovic Radosavljevic missed touch with a penalty in the closing minutes of the Champions Cup final. There is no excuse for such errors – these are things professional players will practise every week.
Nick Abendanon’s odd chip in the closing minutes of the first half at Twickenham resulted in a try for Clermont, Chris Masoe collecting the ball and running it back before Mathieu Bastareaud barrelled over several phases later.
Aimless kicking is not only boring to watch but it allows the opposition time and space to either launch a counter-attack or gain territory with a kick of their own (providing they give it more thought!). Yes, sometimes players simply need to kick to clear pressure but too often we see them put boot to ball with little idea of what they are trying to achieve. Think before you kick.
HISTORY IS MADE
You’ll be sick to the back teeth of celebratory selfies by now, but if you can stomach looking at the images of Toulon, post-win, you’ll notice that in a flash they were out of their red jerseys and into commemorative T-shirts. Black T-shirts, emblazoned with an enormous ‘3’.
No one else can ever say they’ve won three European title back-to-back. And whatever you think of how the side from the South of France have done it – their globetrotters’ squad of Test superstars has more caps than a millenary – you have to appreciate the milestone.
As for Gloucester: they last won the Challenge Cup nine years ago. They’ve been covetously watching the elite go about their business for almost a decade and now they have another title. Could this win highlight a first big step on their climb to the top of the game again? Perhaps…