After a thrilling weekend, where French teams and Bath showed all the flair, history looks set to repeat itself as we head to the possibility of an all French final unless Saracens and Leinster can produce miracles away from home. After the excitement of the Six Nations, the Quarter-Finals of the Champions Cup continued the party and we had the privilege of four superb games to feast our eyes on this weekend. Bath and Racing Metro produced some superb rugby even though they ended up being knocked out of the competition. Clermont gave us a truly epic first half and showed that French rugby is alive and well, while Toulon’s world XV did as expected against a very courageous Wasps side that fought to the very end and produced some spectacles of their own. Lastly, Leinster and Saracens got the job done though perhaps not in the most convincing manner and only on penalties, while English Premiership giants Northampton were put to the sword in France.
Leinster vs Bath
Final Score – Leinster 18/Bath 15
In a match where Bath provided all the excitement only to suffer the heartbreak of losing by three points at the death, Leinster got the job done to get them a semi-final berth but one can’t help feeling that on the basis of this performance they are going to have a tough go of it against the Toulon try scoring machine. This is not to say that Leinster played badly and if anything till they got to Bath’s 22 seemed to have much more composure and better organisation than Bath. The quality of Leinster’s passing was for much of the match and certainly the first half better than Bath’s and they seemed better at stringing a set of quality phases together. However what seemed a mystery to many observers was that this obvious skill advantage did not translate into tries. If anything, Leinster would masterfully take the ball to Bath’s 22 and then mysteriously stop playing. Bath would then counterattack and had it not been for them making a series of costly errors particularly in relation to passing and handling in the first half, they would easily have emerged the winners in this match. Bath were by far the more enterprising side, and George Ford once he settled his nerves was a revelation at number 10. After the Six Nations and this game, there can be no doubt in England coach Stuart Lancaster’s mind that he is England’s World Cup fly half – the back of Ford’s shirt may have said 10 but the front had X-Factor in large letters written all over it!
What Leinster were good at however, was applying constant pressure on Bath that caused a succession of penalties and it was Leinster’s Ian Madigan’s turn to shine with the boot. His accuracy on the day was what carried Leinster through, coupled with overall team composure and good work with ball in hand even if none of it resulted in tries. This latter factor will have to be addressed if they want to stand any chance of closing out Toulon in a fortnight’s time and without the Aviva faithful urging them on. If Leinster cannot score tries then they will have to completely shut down Toulon tactically which I am not sure they can. They were not able to shut down Bath and the Englishmen knew exactly where the Leinster try line was and how to get there. Let’s face it if George Ford had been slightly more accurate with the boot at goalkicking time then it would have been Bath’s day.
Apart from one close call from Zane Kirchner for Leinster the Irishmen never really looked like they would be able to turn solid possession and accurate passing into actual tries. If Bath had cut out the handling errors that plagued them for the first twenty minutes then it would have been their day. By the end of the match Bath were dominating possession and already had two fine tries, including George Ford’s superb effort, to show for their efforts. They definitely were the more enterprising attacking team, even if one could argue that in the second half they were chasing the game which gave rise to their more adventurous style of play, but when you have a back line boasting the likes of Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph this is hardly surprising. George Ford rose to the occasion and then some for Bath and certainly dismissed the memory of his recent visit to Dublin with England – the man was on fire!
Leinster are through to the next round, but they know they will have to dig deep and somehow find a way to turn their composure and obvious ability into five pointers if they are to stand any chance against the World XV represented by Toulon in a fortnight!
Clermont-Ferrand vs Northampton
Final Score – Cle 37/Nor 5
This was easily THE most exciting game of the weekend and Clermont provided us with a breathtaking display of attacking rugby while at the same time completely silencing the pride of the English Premiership. Northampton may be the best in England but on the European circuit they have had a fairly torrid time of it this season and Saturday’s performance was a case in point. After this match, England coach Stuart Lancaster must surely be taking another look at former Bath fullback Nick Abendanon who had an absolute stormer of a game for Clermont.
Putting aside the fact that Clermont are very difficult to beat at home, as the Yellow Army always make their presence known on the field as the quintessential 16th man, nobody was quite expecting the four try onslaught that we witnessed against what was for all intents and purposes a nonexistent Northampton challenge. The visitors did manage to eke out one try, but that was as good as their day was going to get. The day was all about Clermont, and against England’s finest, French selectors can take heart in the fact that Noel Nakaitaci continued the form he showed in France’s last game of the Six Nations against England, scoring two tries. Meanwhile, Wesley Fofana made a superb return to form with a try of his own as well as threatening all match.
Clermont had the match sewn up at halftime, leading a stunned Northampton 27-0. Northampton were without any kind of answer to Clermont’s attacks as the French team’s backs continually punched huge holes in their defences. Clermont’s fullback Nick Abendanon was a constant thorn in his countrymen’s side as he would pop up all over the park, and along with teammates Nakaitaci and Fofana left the Northampton defences constantly guessing. Abendanon and Clermont’s last try summed up a dismal afternoon for Clermont and a stellar one for the Clermont fullback as he stripped Northampton’s George Psi of the ball and went sprinting from his own 22 to cross the white line unopposed.
Northampton, whether it was through pride or desperation seemed to find some collective resolve in the final quarter and at last began to put some pressure on the Clermont line, making some headway as in a rare lapse of discipline Clermont found themselves down to 14 men. After some sustained pressure Northampton managed to get a try through replacement prop Waller, but that would be as good as their day would get. Even that was lucky as in the process of scoring the try the ref ignored blatant and ugly off the ball shenanigans from Waller which in a perfect world would have seen him being awarded a red card, and left Northampton with the label of “sore losers”.
However, after Clermont were back to full strength they rallied and their defence stood firm for the rest of the match to seal a woeful day for Northampton and a spectacular one for Clermont and the Yellow Army. Clermont completely outplayed their English rivals and in the process gave us a spectacular advertisement for French rugby!
Racing Metro92 vs Saracens
Final Score – Racing 9/Saracens 11
In a game that mirrored in many ways the Leinster/Bath match the day before, Saracens claimed a narrow victory over their French rivals without scoring any tries. Racing essentially played the majority of the rugby, including scoring the game’s only try. Racing showed us some enterprising and exciting rugby which put Saracens under serious defensive pressure, but unlike Northampton, Saracens held up well and were able to exert their own pressure in return. Even though Saracens never looked like they would cross the white line they did enough to tire Racing Metro and force them into costly mistakes.
On a sunny afternoon in Paris, French selectors can take heart from outstanding performances from Teddy Thomas and in particular Brice Dulin at fullback who looked particularly dangerous throughout the match. There were also some solid defensive performances from the French contingent of Racing’s forward pack, however their relative lack of experience in relation to their Saracens counterparts really began to show especially in the latter half of the game. It was this lack of discipline and a solid defensive effort from the English visitors that would ensure that Saracens had the edge over Racing. In the end, it all came down to one heart stopping moment at the final whistle. Saracens had been accurate through Charlie Hodgson in ensuring that any penalties incurred by Racing would result in points on the board for the visiting English. However, at the final whistle and the outcome of the game hanging in the balance after a penalty awarded to Saracens, it was Marcelo Bosch and not Charlie Hodgson who was asked to take a difficult kick from almost halfway into a swirling wind. As he has done so often for his beloved Argentina, Bosch got the job done and with pinpoint accuracy slotted the kick that would just edge Saracens in front and win the match by two points. It was ironic that it was only Bosch’s second kick all season for Saracens, and his only other kick had not found the mark – talk about pressure!
In a way it was sad to see Racing who had provided all the entertainment and enterprise emerge empty-handed, but this time around it was the experience and sheer graft of Saracens that won them the game. Their patience and discipline as they experienced a continuous Racing assault for eighty minutes was impressive. So Saracens emerge the victors and now face a semi-final with an electrified Clermont who have shown they are more than capable of scoring tries, something Saracens will have to work hard on if they are to stand any chance in a fortnight’s time. They have the talent – can they find the space they need? Like Leinster, Saracens will have to pull the game of their season out of their bag of tricks in two weeks time!
Toulon vs Wasps
Final Score – Tou 32/Was 18
Last but not least, the clash between French super side Toulon and Wasps ended a weekend of high drama. Given Toulon’s star-studded roster and the fact that they are back to back champions, Wasps were in for a mighty challenge at Stade Felix Mayol, which just like Clermont Ferrand’s home ground is a very daunting venue in which to try and win. However, all credit must be given to Wasps who I felt put in one of the most spirited and courageous challenges of any of the eight quarter finalists at the weekend. Wasps never said die till the end, but Toulon’s hugely experienced roster of internationals ensured that they did enough to get the win.
Interestingly enough, Toulon to me all season have looked like they can be beaten. Rattle them, particularly in the second half, and they are there for the taking. However, this past Sunday they showed that they can keep a game together for a full eighty minutes and when it matters still have something else to give – something Leinster will need to be aware of. It does seem with Toulon though that the closer they get to the final the better they play. Furthermore, they know how to score tries and like Saracens, Leinster will have to find the means to either shut down this ability altogether or else find a way of matching them try for try.
Toulon started the game with intent and, by halftime it looked at 22-6, that the defending champions were well on their way to defend their title for a third consecutive year. The French battering ram of Mathieu Bastareaud got proceedings of to a good start for the French side, from some good work done by Steffon Armitage who once more made us all wonder why he is so rarely on the England selection radar. Wasps then proceeded to commit a series of disciplinary errors that at the boot of a surprisingly on form Freddie Michalak cost Wasps dearly. Nevertheless despite the mistakes Wasps were challenging hard and made some spirited charges of their own at the Toulon white line making the French team have to work just as hard in defence as they were in attack.
At the break, with Toulon comfortably in charge at 22-6, we waited to see if Toulon would start to cave in the second half as we have seen so often this year. Wasps meanwhile started to tighten up their discipline and their scrum certainly seemed to be getting the better of their French counterparts. Toulon meanwhile showed that they can be beat if you exert enough pressure. While they had some brilliant attacks Toulon’s execution started to falter especially as Wasps defence and discipline improved. At the 50 minute mark, Wasps suddenly decided that this game was theirs for the taking and they all played like men possessed for the next 25 minutes, and scored two superb tries through their winger Will Helu who was just as dazzling in attack as his French counterparts. At the 75 minute mark it was 25-18 to Toulon with Wasps pushing hard, and everyone was on the edge of their seats. However, Toulon’s international pedigree of Matt Giteau and Ali Williams showed how it’s done and got the ultimate try to seal it for Toulon. There was some controversy and frustration for Wasps as try scorer for Toulon, Ali Williams should not have been on the field after a cynical pull back of a Wasps player that had happened a few minutes earlier and should have resulted in a yellow card – but c’est la vie.
As the commentary team for the broadcast of this match that I watched said, two things stood out. Firstly Freddie Michalak who in recent years has been aptly labelled as one of the most mediocre players in French rugby had one of the games of his life, whether he can repeat it remains to be seen as he is the master of hot and cold. Secondly, Toulon rarely do more than they need and come the semis will have to be better, but as they have shown in the last two years, their last two games in this European Championship always produce that extra special performance from them. Leinster will be aware of that and have a great deal to do, but will no doubt feel that this mighty French side can be beaten, albeit with great difficulty. Fortune favours the brave except this past Sunday, when Wasps heroic comeback in the second half just didn’t quite get them the prize. Leinster will have watched and taken note – let’s hope for a clash of giants in two weeks time!