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