European rugby returned at the weekend with the Champions Cup quarter finals, and what a brilliant set of matches they were. Saracens, Munster, Leinster and Toulouse took the victories – here are three talking points from the round.
Saracens versatility is ominous for their rivals
For a team to lose one of their best players shortly before kick off usually threatens to derail any bid for success at the tight end of a European campaign.
When Saracens and England flyhalf Owen Farrell withdrew just before their clash with Glasgow, with his partner due to give birth – although Mark McCall was suggesting Farrell was keen to be involved as shortly as an hour before the game, despite no baby having yet arrived – Glasgow must have fancied their chances. And for a few minutes there seemed to be an upset on the cards, the Warriors storming to a 7-0 lead within the first two minutes. However, Saracens shrugged off that early setback to secure a dominant 56-27 win.
What is most impressive about the performance – and most ominous for their rivals – was the versatility and adaptability shown the players and team as a whole, despite a significant portion of their gameplan and preparation suddenly going up in smoke. Alex Goode slotted in seamlessly at flyhalf – far from his regular position – with Alex Lozowski taking on kicking duties and Liam Williams shifting to his preferred fullback position.
It was an impressive performance, especially given the circumstances, but Saracens have been canny in the players they have recruited, taking advantage of versatile players able to perform to a high level in multiple positions. Multi-talented players like Lozowski and Goode, and in the forwards, Itoje and Wray, to name a few, are worth their weight in gold to an ambitious club; it allows McCall to rotate during the season as well as adapt in crunch matches when confronted with a last-minute spanner in the works. It also arguably begs the question why England do not seem to be quite as flexible, given their extensive Saracens contingent.
To that end, the recruitment of a player like Elliot Daly for next season fits that model perfectly. On the surface, and given the surfeit of talented outside backs at their disposal, you would have been wondering just whose place was at risk and where Daly would fit in. The answer seems to be none and everywhere – Daly’s versatility will allow McCall to rotate Williams, Goode, Lozowski, Maitland and others in and out of the side and in different positions with minimal disruption. Strength in depth is what brings long-term success for clubs, just as it could in this Champions Cup.
Cockerill’s Edinburgh shows what Tigers are missing
Although Edinburgh eventually succumbed 13-17 to Munster, Richard Cockerill deserves huge praise for how he has gone about things beyond the border. The Scottish clubs’ impressive showing in Europe this year been all about Edinburgh’s rise over the past two years to be able to compete with the best.
Since his acrimonious departure from Leicester Tigers, via a stint at Toulon, Cockerill has set about adding some steel to Scotland’s ‘second’ club; moulding a trademark pack of hard-nosed forward’s, with a backrow to rival the very best, all while playing some excellent rugby.
Indeed, while Edinburgh have been on the rise, Leicester Tigers have descended into freefall. They are on their third head coach since Cockerill – the second, Matt O’Connor, being given the boot after just one game this season. I still cannot fathom that decision; if you are going to sack your coach (and one game does not make that decision for you) then do it in the off-season so the new coach can have a proper preseason and time to implement their vision.
The feeling was that Cockerill was failing to get the best out of his squad any longer. What Tigers’ capitulation since has demonstrated is that he arguably had them punching above their weight.
They could certainly do with a bit of their former coach’s edge now and, indeed, have parachuted in the experienced Mike Ford to try and steady the ship and hold off the worrying spectre of relegation. An astonishing concern given their traditional status as England’s biggest club.
Whatever you think about Cockerill – and he is the definition of a marmite character – he gets results out of his team. His stock is rising to the point where he is being considered in conversations for Eddie Jones replacement. I will leave that to the comments below to air the predictably strong views about that possibility, but I for one would say we could do a lot worse.
Stockdale drop a painful lesson
Is there a more painful experience for a rugby player than to let a crucial try-scoring opportunity slip away in a tight European knock-out game with a simple error? Feel for Jacob Stockdale, who after slicing through the Leinster defence, contrived to let the ball slide from his fingers as he went to place it one handed over the line.
"This, unfortunately for Jacob Stockdale, is unforgivable!"
A cruel, cruel blow for Ulster. pic.twitter.com/851lr4WwkM
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) March 30, 2019
Yes, it was at pace, and yes, he was being chased down by an opposition player, but a world-class winger like Stockdale has to finish a chance like that. Although hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is no guarantee that Ulster would have won the game, it would certainly have shifted the momentum and, on the face of it, been the winning points.
It follows not long after Freddie Burns’ red-faced howler against Toulouse in the pool stages. Stockdale is clearly gutted by the result and has held his hands up and apologised to Ulster’s supporters on social media. With even higher stakes around the corner, not only in the finals of Europe and domestic leagues, but at the World Cup this autumn, wingers take heed: when the line is in reach, put the ball in two hands and dive.
By Henry Ker