Heineken Cup semi-finals: 5 things we learned

seats

1. Defence certainly can win you games

Given that this was a record win for a Heineken Cup semi-final, you could be forgiven for thinking that Saracens would have dominated the stats. Not so. Some of them are staggering: Saracens’ top three tacklers (Burger, Borthwick and M Vunipola) made more tackles (60) than the entirety of the Clermont team (57), Clermont carried the ball on nearly 100 occasions more than Saracens, and they made 164 passes to Saracens’ 99. And yet, Clermont made just five clean breaks to Saracens’ 15, and scored no tries to Saracens’ six.

How does something like this happen? The answer lies in work rate and, most importantly, unbridled aggression. Saracens, led by one of the most ferocious and committed players we’ve seen for some time in Jacques Burger, smashed into anything in yellow with such fury that, for all the brilliance of Clermont on paper, they simply had no answer. And then, when Saracens were offered a sniff of the try-line, they pounced with the precision that eluded les Jaunards all afternoon. It was a simply astonishing defensive performance, and one that will have Toulon scratching their heads as to how to actually find a way to the Saracens’ try-line.

2. Finding your level

For the second year in a row, Munster have been knocked out in the semi-finals by a French side. For now, it would appear that this is their ‘level’. In truth, Toulon were the better side on the day and deserved to win, and although it is a tired cliché Munster showed their love for this tournament with another display brimming with passion and heart. Do not misconstrue this as some sort of misty-eyed ode to their ‘culture’ or ‘belief’, however – whilst they obviously have both of those things in abundance, they are first and foremost a very good, well-coached side packed with quality players that, with a couple of intelligent signings (most notably in the centres), could become a great one.

3. In from the wilderness

Two of the most eye-catching performances of the weekend came from players discarded from their respective international set-ups in recent times. Most obviously, Chris Ashton is back to his best. He is a figure that certainly divides fans – there will be those that argue that he has always shown reasonable form for Saracens, but hasn’t translated it onto the international stage for some time now. A valid argument no doubt, but he is probably the form winger in Europe right now and, as part of Lancaster’s squad still, deserves one last shot in an international jersey before either being discarded or kept on for next season’s EPS.

Simon Zebo also impressed in a losing cause for Munster and again, while there was plenty of sparkle, it was his work rate that stood out most. His last-ditch tackle on Steffon Armitage saw the big back-rower’s foot clip the touchline when it seemed for all the money in the world he had scored – on another day, that could have been a match-winning intervention.

4. Money talks

The empty-seats-disaster of Saracens’ semi-final against Clermont last season reared its ugly head again. A little under 26,000 attended a brutal and brilliant game of rugby at Twickenham, which would have been fine, had it not been an 80,000 seater stadium. Kudos must go to the fans (primarily those from Clermont, who love a good sing song even when not winning) for keeping the atmosphere somewhere approaching buoyant for most of the game. The RFU don’t want to move the game because they receive a fee for hosting it at Twickenham – which makes sense from a monetary point of view, but when you have somewhere like the Madejski Stadium just down the road, which holds 24,000 and would have sold out, the decision has to be made to host these games in stadia that would provide a proper atmosphere. Either that or switch back to the formula that saw semi-finals hosted at someone’s home ground.

5. Refereeing still a work in progress

It’s not classy to have a pop at the referees, but there were two instances over the weekend that had most viewers scratching their heads. The first was the penalty try for Saracens. It was a yellow card for the offending Brock James, yes, but could you say that a try probably would have been scored? Given the proximity to the dead ball line, Marcelo Bosch’s momentum and the mess of players around, probably not. Nigel Owens is a fantastic referee, and it didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but he got this one plain wrong.

Wayne Barnes’ decisions the next day were even more baffling, however. Steffon Armitage looked to have scored a try, but was quite close to the touchline so, fair enough, Barnes went upstairs – and was vindicated when it emerged Armitage’s toe brushed the chalk. Consistency is what everyone wants, however, so it completely belied belief when, a few minutes later, Simon Zebo wrestled his way over the line under the attention of two Toulon defenders and the TMO wasn’t used. There is a good chance he scored, but even the television replays were dubious so for Barnes to decide after just seeing it in the flesh that he was happy it was definitely a try was quite a shock. No one likes the consistent breaks in play for the use of technology, but when it’s there, with such a 50/50 decision on such a big occasion, it has to be used.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

7 thoughts on “Heineken Cup semi-finals: 5 things we learned

  1. With the Zebo try, the touch judge had told Barnes no reason not to award the try. He was in a better position than any camera and if you can’t trust the assistant ref when he unequivocally states a try has been scored then whats the point of them being there?

    1. Absolutely. I called it an excellent display of refereeing at the time. Thought it was a try, went straight to the guy who would have seen it best, awarded it. Absolutely no reason for a TMO, good call from Barnes.

  2. I think the problem with so many empty seats lies in the hands of the organisers. I’m a Saracens fan and for Premiership semi’s and finals we can claim our tickets at a discounted price because of certain agreements the clubs have with the RFU etc. These agreements are not in place with ERC so the tickets are sold at full price even for those who are season ticket holders.
    I can also tell you that the ticket allocation for the HC final for Saracens is 5,000. Now I’m assuming that Toulon would receive the same allocation? That means only 10,000 tickets are allocated to the two clubs for the final.
    Now I know Saracens do not have that many season ticket holders, and Toulon probably don’t either. But in a 72,000 seater stadium, 10,000 tickets for the two sets of fans is pretty crap! This means that up to 62,000 seats could be sitting empty!!
    So why not do a deal like they do for the Prem play-offs etc and let season ticket holders from each club buy more tickets for friends etc at a slightly discounted price and get more bums on seats. That way the ERC make more money, the stadium owners get more money, and it creates a better atmosphere.

    1. Dazza, I believe the tickets for the semi final were £15. Is that not good value for a HC semi final? As for the final, I have two tickets I wont be using and are available at face value. I also believe there will be many more coming available over the next week or so.

  3. re the empty seats disaster. What does this say about the usual excuse that the English and French attract the biggest audience? There are teams that would have filled Twickenham for that semi final unfortunately not many (if any) are English or French.

    1. It says that when they say audience, they mean TV audience, where the real big money is on a regular basis.

  4. Part of the issue is that Saracens don’t have a particularly large fan base. They’ve got big crowds to Wembley, but that is normally playing against another London club, around the holidays, and its a date in the diary for many months and can be marketed as such.

    I was at the Ulster quarter final last year at Twickenham, and genuinely thought that their fans outnumbered Saracens fans. Hopefully the final will be well attended, can’t see many neutrals backing the men in black though.

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