Saracens and Leinster will face off in the Heineken Champions Cup final for the first time, having overcome Munster 32-16 and Toulouse 30-12 respectively in the semi-finals at the weekend. Combined winners of the past three competitions, the two heavyweights were among the favourites from the start and will now face each other at St James’ Park in Newcastle on 11th May.
Here are three talking points from the semi-finals.
Breakdown mongrels show their worth
Saracens game against Munster on Saturday was a bruising contest between two team renowned for their powerful and physical gameplans – Munster’s line-speed and defence in particular were epic, regularly stopping Saracens’ attack dead in its tracks, until it began to tire late in the second half.
But where this game was won was the breakdown. Something of a free-for-all to begin with, there were six breakdown penalties awarded by referee Jerome Garces in the opening quarter. Facing two of the masters of the turnover in Tadhg Beirne (the most prolific jackaler in the competition with 12 turnovers) and Peter O’Mahony, Saracens’ gradually began to dominate, thanks to the powerful clear outs from the likes of Jamie George, George Kruis and Maro Itoje, allowing Saracens’ own breakdown hounds Jackson Wray and Michael Rhodes to prosper. Wray and Rhodes spoiled Munster’s fluidity, regularly getting hands on to at least slow, if not turn over the ball, and effectively nullifying Munster’s own threat there.
Meanwhile over in Dublin, Scott Fardy – ably supported by James Ryan and Sean O’Brien – was causing havoc against Toulouse. The unsung hero of the Australia backrow that took their team to the 2015 World Cup final, Fardy’s standing has surely grown since he departed the Wallaby set up, the realisation that he was the work-horse that allowed the twin-openside threat of Michael Hooper and David Pocock to work. Now 34, but signed on for another season with Leinster, he was at the heart of everything on Sunday: tackling, disrupting, jackaling and being a general nuisance – the hallmark of any good back row.
The game at Champions Cup level is that little bit faster, there is that bit more space and the longer ball-in-play time means teams begin to tire and struggle to support players on the break. In situations like that, a player who can dominate the breakdown comes into their own. Come the final and this will be a titanic tussle of the ruck dark arts, whoever comes out on top will likely take home the trophy.
Empty stadium a worrying sign
The Saracens v Munster game had a paltry 16,235 fans in attendance – about half the 32,000-capacity Ricoh Arena – and I would put money on at least three-quarters being travelling Munster fans.
I know Saracens are do not have the biggest supporter base in England, and it was Easter weekend, and Coventry is not the most exotic of locations (apologies to Coventry residents) but that still is a slightly worrying level of disinterest in the leading European competition from club fans.
The Irish and some of the French teams have much healthier support, and indeed Leinster against Toulouse saw 42,960 at the Aviva in Dublin (although that can still seat close to 52,000 and is often used as Leinster’s home stadium), so maybe it is more of an English thing, but when standard Premiership club games at Twickenham get three or four times that number in attendance, something seems amiss.
Is Ben Spencer England’s second nine?
It is the question which has dogged Eddie Jones and this England team for the past few years – who is England’s other nine? With Ben Youngs firmly cemented as the coach’s number-one scrumhalf, we have cycled through Danny Care, Richard Wigglesworth, Ben Spencer and Dan Robson, with a mix of form and untimely injury scuppering things every time we seem to have found an answer.
Spencer delivered a commanding display on Saturday, showing quick distribution, good vision and sharp running, all while up against the premier nine in the northern hemisphere, if not the world. Spencer has matured into an astute all-round nine, has a brilliant relationship with fellow Saracen and England’s starting flyhalf, Owen Farrell, not to mention half their pack (so important for any scrumhalf), and right now would be my pick to go to Japan in the World Cup squad.
What did you make of the Champions Cup semi-finals?
By Henry Ker