Three talking points from the Champions Cup quarter finals

Jamie George

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.

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

29 thoughts on “Three talking points from the Champions Cup quarter finals

  1. So Goode can play FB to international standard and FH to a high quality in European Cup. Does make me wonder why he is so over-looked by Eddie Jones – he would seem to offer a fantastic bench option at 22, both as a game changer and injury cover!!!!




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    1. Goode can play f/back or fly1/2, or maybe in midfield, wide too if necessary? However, it seems his playing at f/back to ‘international level’ is a claim, as he hasn’t played at this level, in this position, since I don’t know when. Club, is one thing, internationals are another, especially during a WC. Personally though, I think that he would be a better bet as cover, or maybe more, for England, but, being a ‘talented’ player he’s never really been, or is likely to be, given a chance & especially under Jones either.




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  2. I’m starting to think Jamie George could be England captain material. The way he conducts himself in all scenarios is really impressive, comes across as a natural leader.




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    1. Can George make decisions about what options to take, under pressure, with a game hinging on the choice of taking a penalty, or going for a lineout drive, or a scrum to win it? Will being an all round good egg, doing his bit, looking & sounding the part in a TV interview cut it? With a looming WC, with 4 left? All this & a coach who seems unable to make necessary decisions, can the non-captained George do so? This is just 1 dilemma for England. And whether Farrell should be replaced & as captain is another. At this stage, it appears a mite late to replace Hartley for me. However, as George, by general concenus here, is the current favourite & incumbent hooker, is he really best placed to be captain novice as well? Would the SH take such a punt likewise? Too many ?’s. Maybe better off with the more experienced Launchbury, but then is he 1st choice lock under EJ? Not enough many answers methinks. Tipping point, in the wrong direction? Mmmm. Likely all academic under Jones though, could be wrong, but don’t expect much (anything?) to pivotally change.




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  3. The versatility & depth thing at Saracens needs to be put into some context. Why would their plans go ‘up in smoke’ just because the now somewhat discredited Farrell, whose bubble has burst, was unavailable? The implication of his absence seems to have been that Saracens could have become unhinged by his omission. I think that this is where basic forethought comes in. As every teams suffers from player absences, surely a plan ‘B’ to replace these ought to already be in place. Saracens, with their policy of buying up almost every international going & BTW, currently being under scrutiny, yet again, for financial irregularities in this regard, ought to be ‘versatile’ enough with player availability to effect this. Notwithstanding this, I don’t see their game plan as being particularly ‘versatile’. More so & especially with Farrell at their helm, it’s fundamentally R1, with kicking aplenty. Possessing still, a substantially ‘bought’ team of international mercenaries, they overpower most opposition up front, thus drawing them in & creating space out wide, for what looks like ‘creative’ tries, points. The only trouble with this policy is if they are held, or dominated up front. Like in Europe last yr, or perhaps in the league, to an extent, this yr. That they buy astutely is one thing, whether it is legal however, with potential fiscal shenanigans via Wray’s various player joint venture companies, may be another. Either way, money talks pretty loud at Saracens.




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    1. Don’t agree that Sarries ” buy up every international going” Don. What they have been exceptionally good at is bringing in older players who still have a few years left in their legs but also buy in to the ethos of the team and help bring on younger players. There are core players like Barritt, Wigglesworth who have been there years, and the likes of Burgher, Rhodes,Brits etc have brought a huge amount to the club and been instrumental in bringing through Itoje, Isiekwe etc. They are a well run club and a good side who attract a lot of negative comment, much of it undeserved. Daly going there next season will give them tremendous versatility, but I don’t think they are as one dimensional as you seem to believe even now. The possible financial irregularities are another matter, but I suspect that most clubs try to bend the salary cap rules. I am particularly interested to see how Quins manage to fund the influx of virtually a whole new team next season without falling foul. As you say, money talks pretty loud at Saracens, but it does at nearly all top clubs in all professional sports. That, I think is the nature of the beast.




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      1. Well Andy, not in order, but here goes. Francois Pienaar, John Smit, Schalk Burger, Jannie de Beer, Gavin Johnson, Michael Horak, Alistair Hargreaves, Brent Russell, Thomas Caistengede, Derick Hougaard, Wickus van Heerden, Ernst Joubert, Mouritz Botha, Chris Jack, Michael Lynagh, Glen Jackson, Kelly Brown, Phillipe Sella, Jacques Burger, Schalk Brits, Chris Wyles, Neil de Kock, Brad Barritt, Vincent Koch, Michael Rhodes, Sean Maitland, Nick Skelton, Liam Williams & Vuipolas x2. Apologies if I’ve missed a few, or if they’re not quite ALL internationals born here, or for not mentioning the umpteen overseas ‘feeder’ which Sarries ‘patronise’, but I grew fatigued in affirming the whole bloody lot! Money does indeed talk. Just a pity that you appear to condone this spurious practice, justifying it by stating that it is ‘the nature of the beast’. So’s global warming & filling the oceans with plastic, Andy!




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        1. In fairness to Andy i think you could put together a list as long for any of the premiership clubs if you look over a ten year period
          Also throwing the Vunipolas in there is a bit harsh. Im sure there are no foreign born players in super rugby

          I support Saints and here is there list of internationals that joined in the last 5 years
          Biggar, Naiyaravoro, Franks, Worley, Kellaway, Ribbans, Eadie, Horne, Reinach, Van Wyk, Brussow, Picamoles, Ma’afu, Groom, Estelles, Ratuniyarawa, Tuitavake, Hanrahan, Howard, Bennett, Matfield




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          1. Thanks Leon, I was about to make the same point but you have made it for me. For me, the main difference between Sarries and the other Prem clubs has been their ability to recruit players of class and character who give more than they take out. If one looks at Don’ s list which goes back over 25 years, it is striking how few of them came just for the pension. Most of them were real assetts to the club who gave more than they took. Not sure why Don is so down on them. Maybe because he dislikes Farrell so much, or has an inbuilt prejudice against South Africans? At least Sarries don’t recruit 12 year olds from poor islands in the Pacific, offer them school places to play rugby for a few years and then send them home if they are not good enough.




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            1. Name them then Andy? Typically, you once again generalise. A speciality of yrs? Like my being 1′ eyed’, without quoting, specifically why. You speculate about Farrell, which has nothing to do with the points in hands & my apparent ‘downer’ on Saffas, which you reframe to suit yr own perceptions of what I’m actually stating. Basically, it’s a moral thing. Do you eschew this in yr selfish quest for self justification of self interest? Seems so. You are simply too unscientific & general in yr responses. I, OTOH, name specific players, facts. Try it sometime Andy, it might free you up a bit.




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              1. Hard to name people who are often on the boat back home by the time they are old enough to play adult rugby because they have been deemed not good enough Don, but I have relatives working in the education system in NZ who tell me that it happens on a regular basis. As to self interest I find it hard see why I should be accused of that for defending a club that I do not support and have no vested interest in. I am also far too old to require”self justification”. As to “speculation”, your dislike of Farrell has been well documented on here for a long time and could reasonably be seen as a reason for not liking the club that employs him. I don’t like the Prem clubs employing a large number of foreign players either, because I think it can deprive young players of opportunity, but professionals will go where they are best paid and most appreciated. That is, despite your objection, “the nature of the beast”, and is not remotely comparable to filling the oceans with plastic.




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                1. Then tell yr relies in the NZ ed system to name these hordes Andy. You seem to have become akin to AlexD with yr intractable, yet unsupported opinions. Without facts, names it’s speculation.. as usual. And it doesn’t hold water to imply that, because someone else is allegedly doing it, it justifies our doing it. Auckland is (yawn, yet again) the biggest Poly city in the world. Immigration is a fact of life. NZ also presents ed opportunities for PI’anders. If they’re entitled to play NZ rugger they may do do so. However, although I’ve tired of going over this, you may wish to check where the likely current NZ team members were born. Yr real answer of course, is to play better rugger. And you still avoid dealing with Sarries’ continuing corruption charges which is central to the whole issue of their concentrated buying of Saffas. Which of course, as even you admit, suppresses yr local players. You may not support Sarries, but you seem to support the undermining of SH rugby, epitomised by their under investigation practises. I don’t rate Farrell for reasons already stated by many here, not just me. Likewise I don’t like Sarries, again for the already stated reasons. Yr linking of the 2 is irrelevant reframing. That pros may go to where they’re best paid, if not nec appreciated (Hendre Fourie, who played for England, may not have felt appreciated when immediately faced with deportation following a career ending injury) doesn’t have be condoned & ironically, is contradicted by yr counter contention & with which I concur, that it does indeed suppress yr own.




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          2. Well then, perhaps you could tot up a S Rugby list too then Leon. Stats can be manipulated. However, the Sarries list is still longer than yr N ‘hampton one. Saracens have heavily targeted Saffas, overseas feeder clubs & they have & are being investigated again for financial chicanery, the latter 2 issues of which you don’t address. This, I’m alright Jack, self serving, prevailing attitude, which continues to undermine the SH, is seemingly condoned by you & Andy. If the reverse drain were the case, what would yr position be then? Saracens are a leading tip of the iceberg, that’s all. Poor form, am I making all this up?




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            1. I kept my list to just the last 5 years. Your list spans a decade but if you want me to go back further here goes
              G.North, S.Ma’afu, K.Fotuali’i, R.Verbakel, G.Dickson, G.Pisi, K.Pisi, B.Reihana, R.Wilson, J.Downey, A.Blowers, W.Shelford, P.Lam, J.Ansbro, S.Lamont, E.Murray, B.Pountney, T.Smith, G.Townsend, G.Pagel, J.Kruger, B.Mujati, S.Tonga’uiha, S.Manoa, C.Wyles, M.Roberts, A.Bateman, C.Spencer, F.Autagavaia, A.Tuala

              Can’t be arsed to scan individual players on wikipedia to find out where they were born (using your Vunipola rule) but it is widely recognised that a lot of islands talent plays super rugby




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              1. Don has actually gone back well over 20 years Leon. Once again your point is well made. Overseas players will come to wherever they can make a decent living and I can see nothing wrong with them wanting to provide for their families and futures.




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                1. Not for the bulk of these players Andy, as you well know, since you’ve checked. Not being 1eyed & seeing only what you want to see surely? You’ve completely ignored the wider implications of my piece & reframed it to to suit yr narrow, self serving view. Bit simplistic for an experienced 79 yr old innit?




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              2. As bad as Saracens then Leon? Although they haven’t particularly targeted Saffas as have Saracens. Again, you don’t address their latest corruption investigation or SH player drain. It’s part of a wider issue & as even the jaundiced Andy concedes, suppresses yr own players’ opportunities. Heard of France?




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        2. I think previously they did have a habit of buying up big name internationals, but definitely not so much now. Of all those players you’ve listed only a few are still at the club. Burger, Barritt, Koch, Rhodes, Maitland, Skelton, Williams, Billy and Mako. Barritt was not an international player when he joined, and neither was Mako or Billy. Rhodes has still not played international rugby, Skelton hadn’t played for Aus for some time when he first joined on loan, and hasn’t played for them since. Koch had only a few caps for SA (mostly off the bench) when he joined and I think Burger had already retired from international rugby? So Maitland and Williams are the only ones who joined while still playing international rugby.
          What they have done is built up a very good academy and filtered these players into the team. Players like George, Kruis, Wray, Itoje, Isiekwe, Goode and Farrell, Earl, Tompkins etc. Most of these players now form the core of the team.




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          1. Agree entirely Dazza. As a Quins fan I wish our management had shown such a clear sense of purpose over a lengthy period of time.




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            1. OIOW, rugby imperialism, exploitation, eh Andy? Thought you were more enlightened than that. Good wheeze, if you’re not on the receiving end, huh?




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          2. Surely, you prove my point Dazza? Sarries have heavily targeted (& drained) particularly Saffa rugger & their players (with their SA connections no doubt, whom, could it be argued, ultimately sold their own out?) & meantime, likely due to their largely ‘bought’ success, have subsequently, substantially enabled them to nourish their academies. However, this is at the heart of a process which is at the expense of others! AKA, ‘the nature of the beast’?




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            1. As you say Don ‘the nature of the beast’. Sarries are most definitely not the only club to Prem club to recruit SA players. In fact at the moment, we are a few behind some of the other clubs. Sarries currently have Rhodes, Burger and Koch, of which one is retired from international rugby and one never played for SA. As for bought success, definitely not so much these days, again when compared to other Prem clubs. Have a look at Wasps recruitment over the last few seasons and see what you think.




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  4. Maybe it shows that having Farrell in the side isn’t key to Saracens success? They have had to do without the Vunipola’s, Itoje, Williams and Kruis for extended periods so know how to adapt and to use the considerable depth of their squad.
    What should concern them is losing Barritt, who really is the glue that keeps that side together.
    Cockerill had probably reached the end of the road at Tigers. Every coach has a shelf life, no matter what they have achieved. I think he’s showing at Edinburgh that he is a top coach.




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  5. No excuses for ‘Stickdale’. Bet he’s getting some. He should feel badly. He’s earned it. This is basic rugby. Why players don’t simply, ALWAYS, cross their arms over their chests, with the ball clasped firmly therein, beats me. The fashion of placing the pill one handed, usually works, but it carries the risk of bouncing or losing it. So why take the risk? Unprofessional, immature? Show-ponying? Whatever, I don’t understand why coaches don’t jump on it, but they don’t. It’s akin to carrying the ball under the inside arm, another cardinal sin. How can a tackler be fended off? Both practices butcher tries. Julian Savea used to do both, particularly the latter. He’s no longer an AB. Ioane does the same at times. Needs a bluddy good slap!




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  6. 69 not 79 Don, and to be honest on this occasion I have no idea what you are rambling on about. Why “self serving”? I have no axe to grind whatsoever, and apart from being a Quins supporter because I played there many years ago I tend to look at the game from a fairly neutral perspective. The fact that my opinions do not always coincide with yours probably doesn’t justify the level of your personal criticism.




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    1. It was typo Andy. Apologies. It was meant to be 70, as you stated elsewhere. What I’m rambling on about, is that you appear to condone sharp practise. Some of which is currently being investigated at Sarries & explained in other posts here. Not that complicated. I wonder if Alan Whinge-Jones (x3?) would agree with yr neutrality.




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      1. Don’t condone sharp practice at all. Sarries are under investigation once again, but have not yet been found guilty. You seem to see the whole issue of foreign players as a moral one, but (possibly regrettably) rugby is now a business rather than a game.This being so, the best players will end up with the strongest clubs in the wealthiest countries. It is a question of the basic economics of supply and demand and although it may be cynical the likes of you and me are not going to influence it. If there’s a no deal Brexit none of the English clubs will have two beans to rub together within a couple of years anyway, so they will probably all go home. I gather there are something like 350 Saffies playing pro rugby in Europe at present and I am sure most of them are much happier doing that than working at something else in SA because the game can’t support them there. Finally, Whinge-Jones is a great player and a fine man, but I hate to see players reffing the game instead of getting on with it regardless of nationality.




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        1. May be able to do little about commercial interests prevailing over morality, but it doesn’t mean that these have to be accepted Andy. Also, I do sometimes post or mail org’s to ?, condemn or challenge them to do better. I prob don’t do it enough though. Reminds me, must fire a missive off to WR’s Gosper, who also opines the market forces rule ok? Remind HIM that they ought not to. Not least because, as you point out, ultimately they will tilt the balance of rugby (permanently?) out of kilter to the extent that they will suppress local talent in favour of ‘foreign’ mercenaries, thus further distorting the world game. Trouble is, self interest I bang on about, blinds most to the consequences of same. All actions, including those greed based, have reactions. Hence my parallel, if rather emphasised, comments about warming & plastic. Now what is BG’s address?




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