The gelding of Toulouse, brave Munster and constricting European finalists - Champions Cup semi-finals reviewed
Another weekend of colossal Champions Cup action has whittled down the final four to the final two. Saracens felled Johan van Graan’s brave Munster men in typical constricting fashion, while resurgent French giants Toulouse had their all-offloading, all-running, all-everything game sanitized by a Leinster side keen to retain their European crown. Talking points, standout performers and interesting tidbits are found below.
Headlines in the lead up to Saracens’ Coventry hosting of Munster were dominated by the relatively disappointing 4000 travelling ‘home’ fans in contrast to the 8000 strong red Irish hoards. Indeed, spotting Saracens supporters’ whilst walking through the Ricoh did feel like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ at times. Once again, the Irish have proved themselves the best travelling fans in the game.
But numbers aside, the Saracens supporters that made the trip north yesterday were well voiced and plainly up to the task of going decibel to decibel with their counterparts. A challenge that may not have been exactly level, but it was certainly close at times. The reigning Premiership champions may only be a small club, but you can’t fault their fan’s Coventry efforts.
But, we turn our thoughts to on-pitch matters. Much has been said of the power of both Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and the sizable bench appearance of giant Wallaby lock Will Skelton for Saracens, but the tenacity of both England hooker Jamie George and USA tighthead Titi Lamositele are deserving of equal attention.
George would have been my man of the match yesterday, while Lamositele is proving himself more than a mere squad player. What the American gave away in kilograms to his propping colleague, Mako Vunipola, he made up for in pace and acceleration into the contact area yesterday. The American averaged over five metres per carry, a better average than any other Saracen forward in this year’s semi-final clash.
Munster are in possession of one of the most tenacious packs in Europe when all are fit, but struggled to compete with the sheer weightiness of Saracens’ ball carriers. In his post-match interview, Munster captain Peter O’Mahony credited his side’s lack of success to the sheer encumbrance of pressure imposed by their opponents.
“We played rugby in areas we probably didn’t plan in doing so as a result of being down by that much.” The one-time British and Irish Lions skipper admitted. “With their defence, the way they go after teams, particularly in their own half, it makes it that little bit more difficult when you are trying things that if we were closer or ahead we probably wouldn’t be doing.”
For me, the standout performer for two-time European champions was Ireland international centre Chris Farrell. The five-times-capped Munster centre singlehandedly shut down three ominous attacks before the men in black put the foot down in the second half. The Belfast-born centre also utilized his 6ft3” 110kg frame to good effect, making the hard yards for Munster when the going got tough.
The former Ulster and Grenoble midfielder was a mobile concrete block on legs yesterday and offers Joe Schmidt an excellent alternate to fleet-footed Leinster centre Gary Ringrose at international level. The big man’s passing and kicking skillset is also non-too shabby considering his bruising constitution.
As far as impressive performers in Saracens’ backline go, the ever-graceful Alex Goode offered his usual silky threat from the backfield, leading us to further question his continued England exclusion.
Another standout, Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer, benefitting from recent injury issues of record Premiership appearance holder Richard Wigglesworth, was central to yet another knockout rugby victory for Mark McCall’s men. Strange to say of a man of 26 years, but this performance felt like a coming of age for the three-times-capped halfback.
While he cannot boast the attacking potency of Wasps man Dan Robson or the natural footballing ability of Harlequins’ Danny Care, but Spencer could well be the closest thing England have to a like-for-like replacement for Ben Youngs; and arguably, an improvement given his consistency.
Toulouse gelded while Conan the Barbarian conquers
The first 40 minutes at the Aviva Stadium earlier today felt like a condensed version of the full match from the day before. Toulouse could offer no answer to pressure Leinster exerted, with the current European champions claiming first-half scores for James Lowe and Luke McGrath and forcing Toulouse’s Scottish lock Richie Gray into conceding a senseless yellow card in the lead up to McGrath’s score, to boot.
Although, despite Leinster’s virtual castration of the Toulouse attack, the head-to-head of Lowe and Cheslin Kolbe down one wing did not disappoint. Kolbe’s stupefying footwork bested Lowe on more than one occasion, despite not garnering tangible results. While the New Zealander’s own running threat profited ample success throughout this Southern Hemisphere wingers tête-à-tête.
Despite the sizable task of contending with the heft of Jerome Kaino, Joe Tekori, Richie Arnold, Richie Gray and Charlie Faumuina, all of who exceed 120kg, Leinster number eight Jack Conan was the man that stood to the fore, along with the consistently abrasive James Ryan in the engine room.
With CJ Stander struggling to make hay against Saracens a day previous, the 26-year-old’s case for the green number eight jersey continues to grow in strength. Of course, we must put this onto the context of the success and struggles of Leinster and Munster’s packs respectively.
The mouth-watering clash that is Saracens vs Leinster should have plenty of the rugby loving public strongly considering the pilgrimage to Newcastle next month. Saracens' power or Leinster’s relentless energy? Maro Itoje or James Ryan? Owen Farrell or Jonathan Sexton? Truly, this matchup serves as its own hype man. Those St James’ Parks patrons that do make the trip on the 12th of May are set to enjoy a true blockbuster.