Three talking points from the Champions Cup semi-finals

Michael Rhodes

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

12 thoughts on “Three talking points from the Champions Cup semi-finals

  1. On the point of attendance at the Ricoh, it also didn’t help that the direct line train from London to Coventry was out of action for engineering works. More importantly for me (and I’ve not seen any of the press pick up on it) was that hardly any tickets appeared to be available via the website. I looked early, mid-way and late, via both the Sarries link and the general sale website, and the amount of tickets shown as “available” was paltry! They were obviously being held back for some reason, but why?!

    1. That’s a really interesting point, thanks for raising. I did hear about the train issues, but hadn’t heard about the lack of tickets appearing on sale! If they weren’t expecting to sell many, they may not have opened up sections of the stadium for sale (to keep everyone concentrated in one area) but still surprising. You would have though for a ‘home’ semi-final, they would have been going all guns out to try and get a sizeable home crowd?

      1. Henry – Thanks. To clarify, it wasn’t down to the Sarries, it was all controlled centrally by the EPCR. The link I referenced was sent out initially by the Sarries to go through to the seats that had been allocated to us, but the whole ticketing process was handled by the EPCR. The sections were scattered around the stadium, not continuous, and only a few rows or sets of seats would seem to be for sale in each section. I checked back several times over the period leading up to the game and there never seemed t be any more released.

  2. Attendance down – undoubtedly contributed greatly by everything you have mentioned as well as the train situation but I’d add that we are 8 months into the season with the prospect of another 6 weeks … I’m going to sound like a broken record but there is just too much rugby !

    1. I think SJ has a great point here. Sarries are also going to be in a Prem semi-final and potentially the final also. Add that to the European final and it all adds up to a sizeable amount of money to keep spending on tickets.
      I do think that Easter weekend played a big part and people being on holiday etc. but a lot of people can’t afford to go to all of these games, and will probably pick and choose certain semis and finals to go to.
      I can also second Stuart’s comments about the ticket issue. ECPR allocation for the Sarries/Munster game was all over the place. Could some of the empty seats been corporate allocation which weren’t used?

  3. I’m not surprised by the lack of attendance. I don’t know many people who really care about European rugby. I certainly don’t.

    1. Well if enough people didn’t care about Euro Rugby 10TD, it couldn’t exist. Not being insular are you?

  4. For me simply agree with Dazza in that the cost just adds up…..lets face it a day at the rugby usually consists of travel cost, pre-drinking maybe a pub lunch, drinks at the game, drinks after. Add tickets that even to most league games are not as cheap as they used to be (unless you want front row behind the posts). I used to go with the Wife to watch Quins often but any decent viewing seat is now £65! Add the days ‘festivities’ and you are looking at £150 day out per head!

  5. Just on Spencer. It was an assured, mature performance that I enjoyed a lot. He took good options, kept defenders honest while his basics of kicking and passing were first rate.
    He should have had far more game time for England. Hopefully he will from now on. Goodness knows we need some new blood at 9, a position Eddie Jones has neglected badly and where we need to see what players can step up.

    1. Hopefully Spencer will get more and more game time as next season will most likely be Wiggy’s last. He has learnt a lot from those around him and has become a complete 9. He runs good supporting line as well and has great pace and vision. He aslo has a great left boot and a pretty healthy kicking percentage off the tee!

  6. Expressed concerns about empty stadiums to a man in the pub who seems to have all answers to everything. He reckoned that if Sarries had played @ home they’d have filled their ground. So, presumably, the answer is play these games @ home then? Problem solved?

  7. Ben Spencer seems to be the all singing, all dancing 1/2back answer England’s prayers @ 9, but not to EJ’s? What’s he (BS, not EJ) like going backwards though?

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