Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Europe, the Lions, and the form of Ken Owens
Last Updated: 08/05/17 11:37am
Stuart Barnes on the PRO12 and Premiership knock-outs, European finals, and the form of Ken Owens ahead of the Lions tour...
1. Less than a week to the highlight of the European season. This season's European Champions Cup final promises to be an outstanding match with Saracens, the holders, up against their old European adversaries, the fabulous and frustrating Clermont Auvergne.
Saracens have to be clear favourites. They have revealed the full range of their game in this season's knock-out stages.
Glasgow could not live with the speed, accuracy and intelligence of their attacking game in the quarter-final while Munster found the defence of the champions impenetrable in Dublin before being shoved aside in the second half.
A combination of these performances and the Cup remains in their hands. Forget the loss to Wasps, that match has repercussions for the Aviva Premiership but none for Europe.
While the Lions get together early this week, Saracens' European preparation began last week - or earlier - to compensate for the frustrations of missed preparation time this weekend. They will be honed close to perfection for Edinburgh.
2. Clermont, like Saracens, fielded a weakened team at the weekend against La Rochelle. The leaders themselves were already guaranteed a top-two spot and a bye. Still, Clermont got the win and earned themselves a week's rest in the wake of the final. They will need it.
To beat Saracens they will need to start as they did against Leinster in the semi-final and keep going at that pace. Nigel Owens - who referees again - said it was by far the fastest-paced club game he has refereed this season. If their retention stands up to the scrutiny of the Saracens pressure, even the English club will be stretched. I think - this is my ultimate hostage to fortune line of the season - Clermont have it in them not to choke.
Camille Lopez has been brilliant in the clutch moments of both the quarter and semi-final. It could be close but even so, I still find it hard to see anything but a Saracens victory in what could be an outstanding final.
3. On Friday night, Gloucester and Stade Francais meet in the Challenge Cup final. Having beaten La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, they'll feel the hardest work has possibly been done. Stade really should not have been let off the hook by Bath and away from Paris they are a lesser team.
All the talk is about whether the winners of the Challenge Cup should be automatically admitted as the 20th qualifier to next season's Champions Cup... they should, but trophies are important in their own right.
Gloucester rested up their resources against Exeter, Stade have had a poor season but have some high-class players. It is a decent hors d'oeuvre.
4. If Gloucester win the repercussions will travel from Scotland to Northampton who will lose their European play-off place in the event of a Gloucester win.
The Saints slipped to seventh place in the Premiership as Harlequins escaped from Franklin's Gardens with an all-important losing bonus point to return to Champions Cup rugby after two years away.
5. Higher up the table, we now know the semi-finals. Wasps' try, nine minutes from time against a weakened and ill-prepared Saracens side, saw them to top spot and a home semi-final against Leicester in what is now, of course, a local derby.
Exeter, who cannot stop winning with bonus points, meet Saracens in an engrossing game. If there is going to be a time and place to dethrone Saracens it is the week after the Champions Cup final in Exeter.
What Mark McCall would give for the week's rest Clermont have...
6. The PRO12 looks as if the final in Dublin could be the dream occasion, Munster against Leinster. The Irish sides were certainties for home semis before the last round of games kicked off, but Ulster's victory over Leinster may yet prove significant.
The Ulster win saw Munster make it to the No 1 position and, most importantly, secure a tie against the Ospreys. The Welsh side has lost five of their last six games. They are low in confidence and quality.
It is hoped Alun Wyn Jones will be fit to start but if the big man can turn Ospreys' current form around he is rugby's version of Superman and Warren Gatland got the wrong captain. Dan Biggar went off with an ankle injury, a concern for Biggar as his form is for the Lions.
7. In the starkest contrast, Leinster might just have themselves quite a challenge. The Scarlets are full of confidence, their backs are crisp and accurate in their passing as traditionalists like me expect from any Llanelli-based side - they are on a roll.
Johnny McNicholl is an extreme threat from full-back and Steff Evans is showing plenty of creative touches to go with his fine finishing (he won my PRO12 Dream Team vote). Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams looked like a classy pair of international centres.
I'm not sure Liam Williams is the player he was last season. If he finds his top gear we really could have a classic. Leinster are worthy favourites but the Scarlets have the game to scare anyone - they gave Saracens a good game in Barnet and drew in West Wales. I am almost as excited about calling that game as I am this Saturday's.
8. A word for Ken Owens. He was outstanding for the hour he was on the field Saturday. He did his set piece well, tackled when he had to (his defence was exceptional all through the Six Nations) while his offloading and support lines were a delight to behold.
In the race for the Lions hooking position, he seems to be the front runner with Jamie George more used to an impact role and Rory Best's arm questionable under extreme pressure.
9. It is the World Cup draw in Kyoto on Wednesday. Doubtless the phrase, 'pool of death' will be trotted out. Argentina are the third-tier nightmare draw on this occasion. But is a tough draw a nightmare?
In 2003 Australia came out of a pool with Ireland and France to make the final. In 2015 the same nation escaped the most recent nightmare en route to the final.
In 2007 New Zealand had such an easy pool - their second team thrashed Scotland, the 'best' opposition with Italy, Romania and Portugal - that they were unprepared for France in the famous (or infamous dependent on your loyalties) quarter-final. A tough pool hardens a team up.
10. Finally, my thoughts, all our thoughts, go out to the Youngs family. When I saw that Ben Youngs was out of the Lions tour on return from Llanelli on Saturday night, I wondered what the injury was. When I read the news I was reminded that, incredible as the Lions tours can be, it remains only a game, it is not a matter of life and death.