Rounds 5 and 6 of the European Champions Cup provide little in the way of surprises but plenty of entertainment as it is an all English/French affair heading into the quarter-finals!

Posted: January 28, 2016 in European Champions Cup
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The last two weekends and the penultimate rounds of the European Champions Cup pool stages provided us with plenty of spectacle, but in many ways few surprises as English and French clubs emerged as the clearly dominant forces in the competition.  We apologize to English and French fans as there was so much rugby over the last two weekends that we are having to combine our weekly country focused digest of the action into an abbreviated summary spanning both weekends.  Instead of match reports we’ll simply focus on the seven French and six English clubs and what stood out for us that particular weekend.  We’ll start with the English clubs Round 5 performances and then look at the French efforts in Round Six this past weekend and the implications for both countries forthcoming Six Nations campaigns.  So without any further ado let’s get stuck into the action and what impressed us the most from an English and French perspective a mere two weeks from the start of the Six Nations.

Round 5

Bordeaux-Begles vs Exeter Chiefs
Final Score – Bordeaux 34/Exeter 27
Bordeaux

Exeter’s hiccough in this match along the way to the knockout stages seems to have been merely that.  Exeter, a side that has really breathed some exciting fresh air into English rugby, put on a thrilling display against a Bordeaux side that seemed to have also rediscovered the term French flair.  It was one of the most exciting matches of the competition to date and despite Bordeaux getting an early lead Exeter put up a superb comeback effort and they can walk away with their heads held high despite the loss.  As we saw this weekend, they have done enough to get them a well justified quarter-final spot as the competition resumes after the Six Nations in April.

What is perhaps most encouraging from an English perspective is the number of young players this squad boasts that are surely to get some form of an England call up in the next year or two.  Exeter’s halfback pairing of Dave Lewis and Will Hooley certainly seemed to get the job done and Lewis should add some flair to an English attack in years to come.  Meanwhile one of Exeter’s academy players, fullback Max Bodilly is showing plenty of promise for the future.  This is an exciting team to watch and the fact that Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, Winger Jack Nowell and Center Sam Hill have all had their call-up for duty in England’s forthcoming Six Nations campaign is a testament to the talent that Exeter is developing in abundance.  As they showed in the final weekend of the competition, there is plenty of flair at Exeter matched to some solid grit and determination that can see them through when the going gets really tough.  Respectful but never daunted by the quality of the opposition they are up against, Exeter’s quarter-final match against Wasps should be an epic showdown.

Saracens vs Ulster
Final Score – Saracens 33/Ulster 17
London

As Saracens have breezed through to the quarter-finals and seem essentially unstoppable, they would appear to be the dominant force in this year’s European Champions Cup.  Despite a hefty contingent of all star overseas players there is still enough of an English nucleus to this squad to put a song in England Coach Eddie Jones’ heart.

Ulster took the fight to Saracens and were clearly in contention till the last half hour of the match.  It was then however that Saracens suddenly found that extra set of gears we have seen all year from them.  Owen Farrell at fly half has answered his critics and then some this season and must surely be providing England Coach Eddie Jones with a real dilemma in who he chooses at fly half.  Farrell has been called up for England duty this Six Nations and it remains to be seen whether he gets the fly half or a center berth.  Given George Ford’s dip in form at Bath and as we saw in this match Farrell’s clear ownership of Saracens’ game management, it would appear that the first choice number 10 jersey will be Farrell’s.

While Saracens clear forward dominance has been key to their success this year, Farrell’s play making ability and skill in putting his backs in space was clear to see in his setting up of center Duncan Taylor’s superb try.  However, it was Saracens three tries through the seemingly unstoppable power of their rolling maul, has meant that Saracens players are featuring heavily in England Coach Eddie Jones’ Six Nations plans.  Jamie George, the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and George Kruis are all getting their England call-up.  Saracens backs feature less in Jones’s plans with only fullback Alex Goode and as mentioned above fly half Owen Farrell getting the seal of approval from Eddie Jones.  However, this is more a function of the fact that the bulk of Saracens overseas players form Saracens match day 15 in the backs.  Alex Goode has impressed all year at fullback and Farrell seems to be experiencing a completely new lease on life.  Whether for both these players their form will translate into a matching performance in an English shirt remains to be seen.  For now, however, given the power in Saracens forward pack England should feel confident about their chances of using Saracens’ experience up front to make a real impression at this Six Nations.  Add some Farrell magic to the equation and things will surely spark.  Either way Saracens quarter-final match-up against Northampton should be a game well worth the price of its admission.

Leinster vs Bath
Final Score – Leinster 25/Bath 11
Dublin

Irish giants Leinster finally, after a dismal effort in Europe so far, found some form at Bath’s expense in Dublin.  This was the Leinster of old up against a Bath team who on paper has so much promise but for some reason seems to be struggling in both Europe and the English premiership this season.  Worrying signs indeed for England Coach Eddie Jones as a few of his selections for the Six Nations will be from Bath, most noticeably fly half George Ford who after a stellar 2015 really seems to be struggling to find form this year much to the benefit no doubt of England’s other first choice fly half, Saracens’ Owen Farrell.

Bath were poorly disciplined for much of the match which afforded Leinster’s Ian Madigan ample opportunities with the boot which he made count at Bath’s expense.  Bath’s George Ford was simply not having the same success rate and struggled to assert any kind of control or game management in the match.  In short, it was Bath’s internationals who kept Bath vaguely in touch with a try from Australian number eight Leroy Houston and Wales’ Rhys Priestland giving Bath some much needed accuracy with the boot.  From an English perspective little if anything to get excited about.  Of Bath’s five England squad members, winger Semesa Rokoduguni had a strangely quiet evening and center Ollie Devoto did not play while Anthony Watson didn’t do a great deal to impress at fullback.  Meanwhile prop Henry Thomas only played a role as a bench replacement, and George Ford had another evening at fly half which he would probably prefer to forget.  Considering the relatively significant input by Bath to the England squad for the Six Nations there are grounds for concern especially the dip in form this season of George Ford.  We all know he is a quality player and surely Eddie Jones and English supporters are hoping that once he pulls on an England shirt once more he will rise to the occasion as he did so often last year.  From England’s point of view, it’s a case of fingers crossed!

Leicester vs Benetton Treviso
Final Score – Leicester 47/Treviso 7
Leicester

Looking sharp and very much the Leicester of years gone by the Tigers have been one of the most reliable sides in this year’s European Champions Cup.  However, what has left many scratching their heads is the fact that only one Leicester player has made the England cut for the Six Nations, in the shape of Ben Youngs at scrum-half.  While this can to some degree be put down to the fact that Leicester’s roster boasts a significant number of overseas based players, there have been numerous raised eyebrows over the absence of key Leicester players in England plans for the forthcoming Six Nations.  With Leicester having a strong showing in the Premiership the omissions are all the more puzzling, especially that of hooker Tom Youngs.

While Leicester’s thumping of Treviso, needs to be taken into context as the Italian team has singularly failed to make any kind of impression whatsoever in this year’s European Champions Cup, there were still some standout performances from a Leicester perspective.  Freddie Burns looked really good at fly half as he has all season and surely if there are doubts about George Ford as the Six Nations unfolds he must be a contender to get a call later on.  Working alongside his halfback partner Ben Youngs who had an outstanding evening, Burns looked ambitious but composed when needed under pressure.  Ben Youngs has been outstanding all season and there can surely be few in the English camp who are querying his role as England’s first choice scrum half.  In short, a solid outing from an exceptionally competent European side, but many will surely be questioning England Coach Eddie Jones lack of interest in Leicester players.  However, I would argue that as the Six Nations unfolds and with it the inevitable injury count, some Leicester players may find themselves on Eddie Jones’ speed dial list.

Toulon vs Wasps
Final Score – Toulon 15/Wasps 11
Toulon

Some poor refereeing from the usually reliable Nigel Owens and some lapses in concentration and discipline from Wasps saw them come unstuck against a lucky Toulon side.  Toulon may be three times champions in as many years, but despite their star-studded cast they look easily beatable and Wasps must surely feel let down in a game in which they gave their all but sadly came short.  Wasps’ clear physical prowess in this match and solid defence is reflected in three of their forwards making up England’s Six Nations squad, with Joe Launchbury, Matt Mullan and James Haskell all getting the nod from Eddie Jones.  Meanwhile, Elliot Daly has secured a center spot for England having impressed all season for Wasps both in the Premiership and the European Champions Cup.  I must confess to being surprised to not see number eight Guy Thompson in the England squad as he has been a reliable figure for Wasps all season and this match against Toulon was no exception.

Despite the loss I couldn’t help feeling that Wasps were the better side in this match, and Toulon got some lucky breaks especially from referee Nigel Owens.  Of perhaps all the English sides in this year’s European Champions Cup, I have found Wasps to have some real character and determination to their style of play and their defence at times has been the stuff of legends.  We saw glimpses of it in last year’s competition but they have really ramped it up this year and certainly deserve their place in the quarter finals.  Just as in the case of Leicester it is likely that there are a number of players who make up Wasps forward pack who will be answering their phones as the Six Nations unfolds due to the likely body count as England’s campaign marches on.

Northampton vs Glasgow
Final Score – Northampton 19/Glasgow 15
Northampton

I’ll be honest, I don’t find Northampton a particularly exciting team to watch, but what you do have to give them credit for is probably one of the best defences in Europe along with some brute forward power.  It is for this reason that they clearly feature so heavily in England Coach Eddie Jones plans for his forward pack in the upcoming Six Nations.  While the choice of Hooker Dylan Hartley as England Captain, given his very colorful disciplinary record, has sparked an intense debate, you have to admit that he does bring an edge to England that they have lacked for a while now.  It may not be the edge they are looking for and may ultimately prove to be their Achilles heel but for now the jury is out and most English supporters are hoping that Hartley, in such an important role for his country, can change his spots.  I tend to side with the naysayers but will give him the benefit of the doubt until England’s first match at Murrayfield which will be an emotionally charged event.

This match however, was entertaining from both sides and Northampton along with their usual solid defence threw in some flashy attacking play to further spice up a gripping encounter.  Replacement back Harry Mallinder scored a superb try off a beautiful kick from replacement fly half Stephen Myler.  George North was the recipient who masterfully flipped it back to Harry Mallinder who breezed across the line.  A really sublime piece of rugby and a refreshing break from Northampton’s highly effective rolling mauls when it comes to the preferred method of securing five pointers.  If they are able to produce work like that then surely Mallinder and Myler must be on the radar for future roles in England’s preparations for Japan 2019.

Glasgow made the hosts work hard all night just as they did at the beginning of the season when these two sides first met, but it was Northampton’s brute physical prowess and gritty defence that once again saw them get a much needed win in a season which has not exactly inspired their supporters at times.  However, given Northampton’s significant physical prowess it is no surprise that England Coach Eddie Jones is featuring the likes of Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Paul Hill in his forward pack for the Six Nations.  Given Northampton’s middling form in both the European Champions Cup and the Premiership, it is hoped for England’s sake that these three really gel and lend some real backbone to the English forward platform.  The ability is certainly there, and whether you like Dylan Hartley or not you have to feel for him as he is about to go under one of the most unforgiving microscopes in international Test rugby.  We wish him and his colleagues well!

Round 6

Ulster vs Oyonnax
Final Score – Ulster 56/Oyonnax 3
Belfast

Your heart has to go out to Ulster who in front of a rapturous home crowd put in one of their best displays of the season in a bid to secure a place in the quarter-finals, only to be pipped at the last hurdle on points differences.  Oyonnax meanwhile as the weakest of the French sides in this year’s competition surprised few people in emerging the losers, but perhaps the scale of the loss was not what many were expecting.  This wasn’t a loss; it was an annihilation at the hands of an inspired Ulster team.  Consequently, there is no surprise that Oyonnax will be contributing not a single player to France’s Six Nations campaign.

Oyonnax looked exhausted for much of the match and as a result their discipline and execution simply weren’t there.  By the end of the match, and the last quarter to be honest, there was only one team on the field – Ulster.  You had to scratch your heads at Oyonnax’s complete implosion as their earlier fixture against Ulster had shown them to be fiercely competitive and capable of some solid attacking rugby.  However, in that match we saw them leak 23 unanswered points in the second half, and that kind of performance was on display for the full eighty minutes in this encounter.  Outclassed, outplayed and ultimately out of their depth, it is a European season that Oyonnax will surely want to forget and one that will most likely see them relegated to the Challenge Cup for next year.

Toulouse vs Saracens
Final Score – Toulouse 17/Saracens 28
Toulouse

We’ve already said all there is to say about Saracens and the accolades they are getting were clearly on show again in another master-class performance in this match.  We’ll just look past that bizarre fumble by Owen Farrell which would have seen the English side get a second try.  Toulouse although spirited at times hardly looked a match for Saracens for much of the game.  Indeed, had it not been for a superb effort from New Zealand fly half Luke McAlister, Toulouse would have had very little to say in this match.  There was a moment of sheer brilliance from French fullback Maxime Medard that gave fans a sense of nostalgia for some good old fashioned French flair, but apart from that new French Coach Guy Noves will struggle to find much to get excited about from Toulouse.

In many ways despite the loss, Toulouse certainly looked the more adventurous of the two sides, and this was reflected in them outscoring Saracens by three tries to one.  However, two of them came from sheer individual brilliance from McAlister.  What is promising for French supporters however was Maxime Medard’s try and his seeming return to form more than justifying his call up for France in the Six Nations.  Number eight Louis Picamoles, who will also feature for France in the Six Nations, has also not quite found the form that made him such a force in 2015. It is hoped that under former Toulouse boss and new French Coach Guy Noves he will find it again as France will sorely need Picamoles’ skills.  There is a solid sprinkling of Toulouse players in both the French forwards and backs for the Six Nations but based on this match it was only really Medard who made me sit up and take notice.  Still there is enough pedigree in the seven Toulouse players selected by Noves, that regardless of the team’s struggles this year they still should make an impact when Les Bleus start their campaign in February.

Bath vs Toulon
Final Score – Bath 14/Toulon 19
Bath

We’ve already discussed Bath’s woes this season at length so to their credit they can take some pride in putting in a solid effort against three time champions Toulon.  Having said that though Toulon themselves have failed to really stand out so far in this year’s European Champions Cup.  They have got the job done when required and secured themselves a quarter-final spot but rarely have they given us much to really get excited about, especially given the pedigree of their roster of international superstars.  This also means that on any given day there is not a great deal of French talent on show when Toulon steps out onto the field as evidenced by the fact that there are only two Toulon players in France’s Six Nations squad for 2016.

Maxime Mermoz makes the cut for France and I personally feel that the Toulon centre always has something to offer and given the right coaching setup hopefully being put in place by Guy Noves, he should do well this year in a French shirt.  Meanwhile Hooker Guilhem Guirado is a natural leader and for me a sound choice as French captain.  Other than that there is not much to get excited about from a French perspective at Toulon.  All Toulon’s points came from the work of overseas based players in this match and it is often hard for French based players to really make a statement in this team.  Whether or not Toulon will get beyond the quarter-finals this year remains to be seen, and I personally have my doubts, however they weren’t exactly the dominant team last year.  Nevertheless, once the quarter-finals were upon us we suddenly saw a very different Toulon side and given their star-studded roster again this year I have a suspicion we will be seeing more of the same.

Glasgow vs Racing 92
Final Score – Glasgow 22/Racing 5
Kilmarnock

If you’re like me, you probably weren’t expecting this result.  There is no question that the atrocious conditions didn’t exactly lend themselves to an exciting display of running rugby and Racing without Dan Carter are not the all-conquering beasts they have become of late.  However, Glasgow easily got the measure of them and put in a solid performance that must make them feel gutted that their exploits in Europe are over for the season.  Nevertheless, Racing boast the best defence in the European Champions Cup this season and this is clearly reflected in French Coach Guy Noves selecting four Racing players to make up his forward pack.  The always impressive Eddy Ben Arous is always a solid prop and Bernard Le Roux looks an impressive flanker going into the Six Nations.

The conditions as mentioned did not really provide for running rugby giving the likes of center Alexandre Dumoulin a chance to shine as he has done all season.  Still he is a worthy addition to France’s Six Nations squad.  Meanwhile Maxime Machenaud should be able to provide France with some solid service at scrum-half.  Nevertheless, what was concerning perhaps from a French perspective was that a team that boasts a significant contingent of French talent, looked less than flash at times in both attack and defence when their international star play maker Dan Carter was not on the field.  Glasgow adapted to the conditions much better and in general used the limited opportunities they were able to get to greater effect, especially in terms of forcing Racing into disciplinary mistakes.  Racing has the talent and is clearly one of the more impressively weighted French sides in terms of domestic players and talent, and it is hoped that Guy Noves can weld this talented group effectively into the French side come the Six Nations in a week’s time.

Stade Francais vs Leicester
Final Score – Stade Francais 36/Leicester 21
Paris

Any team featuring the legendary Italian number 8, Sergio Parisse is always going to be hard to beat especially if he is actually leading the side.  Just as he does with Italy, Parisse’s stamp of authority and massive inspirational boost to his troops was there for all to see.  Leicester are rightly considered one of the form teams of the Championship but the English side was always going to be up against it in Paris.  Furthermore, from a French perspective, Stade Francais are one of the most encouraging teams to watch as they boast a healthy roster of talented French players, as evidenced by French coach Guy Noves selecting six of Stade Francais’ current lineup for his upcoming Six Nations campaign.

Whether because of having already qualified, Leicester took their foot off the gas in this match could be debated, but Stade were fired up to put on a big show and perhaps restore faith in the hearts of French supporters in Paris that French rugby is very much alive and well heading into the Six Nations.  For me the two real standout players in this match were fly half Jules Plisson and prop Rabah Slimani, both of whom I expect to see play a big part in France’s Six Nations campaign.  Plisson is a brave and ferocious player despite his diminutive size and was in the thick of the action for Stade throughout the match.  Couple that with an assured and composed kicking game that had plenty of accuracy when needed and he will be an exciting player to watch in a blue jersey come February.  Rabah Slimani is rapidly developing into one of France’s new generation of forwards.  Agile and quick but immensely powerful, Slimani is quickly becoming one of France’s most potent attacking threats while at the same time being a bedrock of their defence.  Opposition sides will struggle to both contain him as well as get past him come February.  Centre Jonathan Danty will also be a player to watch for come the Six Nations and he is already showing some fancy footwork and offloading akin to the French flair of old.

In short, given the very French composition of Stade Francais and less of a reliance on international superstars than other French teams, Stade’s success in this tournament must surely give French supporters a great deal to cheer about as they look towards France’s fortunes in the upcoming Six Nations.  Paris will be a very difficult place for teams to play at and the rising ranks of French talent on display at Stade will only highlight the challenge.

Clermont Auvergne vs Bordeaux-Begles
Final Score – Clermont 28/Bordeaux 37
Clermont-Ferrand

Neither of these sides ultimately made it into the quarter-finals but nevertheless gave us a real spectacle of French rugby, and plenty to think about as we head into the Six Nations.  While Clermont’s scrum half Morgan Parra is in France’s lineup, so is his Bordeaux counterpart Baptiste Serin, and as evidenced in this match, Morgan Parra’s decision making often leaves a great deal to be desired.  By contrast Serin is rapidly becoming the real deal.  I have been impressed by his speed and accuracy in most of the matches I have seen him play in the European Champions Cup.  If I was in French coach Guy Noves shoes, I would be inclined to be give this player as much game time as possible in the Six Nations as he potentially has a bright future in the rebuilding of the French national side post the horrors of the last World Cup.  Although the bulk of Bordeaux’s tries came from the efforts of their overseas contingent, Paulin Riva’s try was sublime and every time he has come onto the pitch for Bordeaux he has made a difference this year.  Although not in France’s Six Nations squad he will still be a player to watch in the next few years.

Clermont will be licking their wounds after failing to do their maths homework properly prior to this match and ultimately squandering a quarter-final berth, as all they needed was a losing bonus point.  Despite this however, they like Stade Francais are one of the most essentially French sides in the competition as the overwhelming majority of their players are French and not overseas players.  It is for this reason that there is a very strong Clermont contingent in Guy Noves Six Nations lineup.  The likes of Wesley Fofana, Scott Spedding, Damien Chouly and Morgan Parra need no introduction.  Lock Sebastien Vahaamahina is rapidly becoming a rising French talent in mold of the great Sebastien Chabal.  As mentioned above, if I was a French supporter I would have reservations about Morgan Parra and it will be interesting to see how much game time Guy Noves gives him during the Six Nations with other exciting scrum-half options such as Bordeaux’s Baptiste Serin and Toulouse’s Sebastien Bezy all challenging hard for the position.  When Parra is good he has few equals but as we have seen so often in pressure situations he has often squandered his team’s chances through some rather questionable decision making.

These two teams may be out of the European Champions Cup, but in the process they have showcased a heap of established and up and coming French talent which surely must give French Coach Guy Noves and French supporters some hope that the nightmare period of French rugby under former Coach Phillippe Saint-Andre is a thing of the past.  If Noves is consistent in his selection policy and uses this Six Nations to really structure a French side that can be kept together over the next four years and in preparation for the next World Cup in Japan, then I would argue that the heart of French rugby is beating strongly.  Like England there is a wealth of talent in French rugby if managed and nurtured properly.  As a result, the French must surely share the title of dark horse with Scotland for this Six Nations.  I for one can’t wait for their opening shots in a potentially exciting campaign that hopefully sees them well on the way to rebuilding the hopes and dreams of this proud and passionate rugby nation!

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