Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes: Saracens stand alone after Champions Cup win
Last Updated: 18/05/16 2:43pm
Stuart Barnes reflects on Saracens' Champions Cup success, an unhappy ending for Conor O'Shea at Harlequins and the major issues facing World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont...
1. To win the European Champions Cup is an achievement in its own right. To be the first team to win it with a 100 per cent record is an outstanding one.
Since the tournament went to its four-team pool structure no side has managed nine straight wins. Leinster were unbeaten but drew their first pool game away to Montpellier (a magnificent late kick from Jonny Sexton saved the day). Saracens stand alone.
The style of the win has been much debated with the reflex criticism of the English side's conservatism much to the fore, but on a day when the heavens opened it would have been folly to have played it any other way.
The champions played the conditions and the nature of the Racing 92 defence superbly. They were tactically astute, voracious in contact, clearly the better team. No side has even looked like beating them in this season's tournament. Critics should think about that before trying to belittle what has been a marvellous effort.
From the day they beat Toulouse in round one to the final blow of Nigel Owens' whistle, Saracens have looked the outstanding team in Europe. No other previous winning side has matched them for overwhelming dominance. They have been magnificent.
2. And what words are left for Maro Itoje? The 21-year-old was the most consistent performer in the regular Premiership season but only won the Young Player of The Year Award. He has earned the European Player of the Year award where the decision is made by a combination of 60 per cent media and 40 per cent social network.
I'll make no secret of the fact that I cast my vote for the young second row. I gave him man of the match in the quarter and semi-final, Dimitri Yachvili did the same in the final. Half-backs like him. He is the first front-five forward ever to win the award. Not before time I hear the old lugs grunt. As for Itoje, the world is his limit.
3. On the subject of 'world class', what a shame to see Dan Carter so utterly ineffective. He has never looked remotely match fit since the knee injury sustained against Toulon in the quarter-final.
In New Zealand Carter would have been wrapped up in cotton wool and fixed for All Black duty - as and when - but in France the clubs pay the money and the pressure was on the great man to perform.
Given the circumstances it was no surprise he looked anything but great. He is not the first and won't be the last to find the pact signed with a French club is Faustian. It's not the soul but the body you give up.
4. France managed their win on Friday night with Montpellier and their SANZAR squad celebrating victory over Harlequins.
Second in the Top 14 and Challenge Cup champions, nobody can doubt that Jake White has done a fine job after the shambles left behind by Fabien Galthie. Whether such a South African dependency is good in the long term for club or country is another debate.
Maybe France and the long term doesn't matter in France. That's another debate too, an even more interesting one.
5. No fairy tale finish for Conor O'Shea. Well beaten on Friday, the last two years look a pretty bleak period for Harlequins as they finished seventh and eighth in those respective years. The Irishman made them into champions but he leaves them as a second-tier English team.
There has been much talk of O'Shea going to Italy to prepare his CV for the Ireland job but right now, Mark McCall's credentials look much the stronger. But why would he want to ever leave a club that treats their players and staff so well?
6. The Challenge Cup was boosted this season by the automatic qualification of the winners for the Champions Cup. Next season it reverts to the previous domestic league play-offs. It will undermine the competition massively.
This year, teams played strong sides looking for another way into Europe. Next year it will be the development tournament it tended to be before this World Cup year and a busy fixture list.
The organisers are not an independent body but one that carries out the will of the shareholders who happen to be the respective competitive leagues.
The Premiership and PRO12 union, I am informed, were the shareholders that demanded a reversion to the weaker format. It is a great shame and a sorry mess.
7. A sorry mess is something that could be said of rugby's calendar, especially those who yearn for a global calendar.
Bill Beaumont as the new chairman of World Rugby has made this task a prime objective. It will mean a shift in the Six Nations and much else besides.
If Bill achieves this task his 1980 Grand Slam efforts will pale in comparison.
8. His younger sidekick, Agustin Pichot, is an exciting appointment. The former Argentina captain knows the highest levels of the sport inside out but more importantly he will represent the previously unheard smaller nations.
He too has an immediate project - to end the 'Player Project' whereby men like CJ Stander and Jared Payne are signed up to play for regions with new international loyalties in mind. The too brief three-year qualification period encourages too many players to head for new shores and potential Test match rugby.
The bigger concern is the recruitment of players from 'smaller' nations. Should Nathan Hughes qualify as an Englishman or is he simply being stolen from Fiji? Pichot wants to stretch the qualification period to five years. That would be a start.
9. Hughes and Wasps head for Exeter who will be hard to beat in the Premiership semi-finals given home advantage and a game that is more adaptive to conditions and opposition than Wasps and their free-flowing game.
Saracens are England's finest team but these are the neutrals' most popular. Saracens will only lose at home to Leicester if they have lost their focus after Lyon. It is possible but unlikely.
10. We at Sky have an atmospheric weekend guaranteed. Leinster have home advantage against Ulster on Friday night in the first of the PRO12 semi-finals but the Ulstermen have the form and momentum going into the game. The RDS will be a sell-out.
The hosts could do with some rain to slow down Ulster and undermine the weak part of Les Kiss's team's game, their scrum. On a dry night I fancy Ulster to nick a famous away victory.
The next day Connacht try to repeat the recent home win against Glasgow. They had the wind and rain that day and the general view is that it negated the superior skills of the defending champions.
The time for underrating Connacht has long gone. The crowd will be half the size as the one in Dublin but it still might make twice the noise. It's going to be one of those occasions when I feel privileged just to be there.
See you in Galway.