Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Champions Cup reflections after the pool stage
Last Updated: 21/01/19 1:15pm
Stuart Barnes looks back at the final round of pool games in this season's Champions Cup....
1. Who would have thought it three years ago when England had five quarter and three semi-finalists? The Celtic contingent were apparently outgunned by the money of the Anglo-French teams. Now the money seems not to matter quite as much as many once thought.
Instead we are hearing how the lack of relegation in the PRO14 gives an advantage to the Celtic sides. All three Irish teams have qualified for Champions Cup quarter-finals as have both Scottish regions. On the surface it seems the evidence is hard to argue with, but dispute it I shall.
2. If lack of relegation was a prime factor surely the two Welsh competitors would have been more effective than they were? Surely the Welsh regions would have been tournament forces? After all the national team has been there or thereabouts through most of the century. I'll come up with a radical solution. The best prepared teams, the ones with the best players and coaches, tend to be hard to beat.
It is not a matter of relegation rather a matter of superior sides. Outside Saracens England's elite is, well...not very elite. Hence the dreadful record of four teams finishing bottom of their respective pools. Take Saracens out of the equation and the other six English clubs won eight games between them. That is risible. Time to start looking in the mirror, where excuses cannot be found.
3. Considering the core of Welsh talent is to be found in just three teams, the Scarlets, Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys, here are three other squads that should be disappointed with their efforts. The Scarlets played some good rugby in their last two games but are a shadow of their recent selves.
Squad depth is an issue, perhaps so too the fact other European sides know what to expect after last season's thrilling run. It would be good to see them mixing up the way they play before Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones head to the national job.
4. Having grown up in Wales I can testify to the fact that regional teams have not increased interest in rugby. Whereas the Irish provinces have always been a large step up from the infinitely weaker club game (ditto in Scotland), Wales had a well-supported and diverse club game.
The current system may feed the national team but it has failed to enhance the day-to-day rugby existence in a country where the oval ball was once king.
5. The English accents reckon Saracens, the top seeds, are the team to beat, the Irish reckon it is the defending champions, Leinster. I'll concur that these have been the two most impressive teams to date. I love watching this Racing 92 team that has undergone a sparkling transition from ugly duckling to rugby Cinderella, but in the process they have lost the knack of the aggressive defending which so troubled Leinster in the final.
If it all clicks they could beat the best but the solid odds remain on the big two. Given the core of excellence that runs through Saracens, from coaching, to culture, to players, I'll not be writing them off but, were I a bookmaker, heaven forbid, I would have Leinster installed as favourites.
6. What I love about this sport is the way opinions differ. Watching the Munster match against Exeter on television Saturday night, I thought the match one of the most error-strewn games I have seen in a long time; a game where creativity had gone missing.
But listening to it, all that intensity and physicality, it sounded like something special which I certainly could not see. Part of the Munster magic resides in Thomond Park and its atmosphere. It swirls in the cold Limerick night air. I think I may have been carried away from that particular commentary box a few times over the years.
7. It wasn't much of a beauty contest on Friday night either but credit to Edinburgh who have won their last five pool games and in the process qualified for a home quarter-final against Munster. Montpellier were incapable of taking Richard Cockerill's team all the way. I always thought the home side were in control of this one.
Seeing the strength of the Edinburgh front row as well as a Glasgow scrum causing a predominantly-international Saracens pack plenty of problems, you wonder how powerful the Scotland scrum might be come the World Cup, when a few long-term injuries return.
8. All that fuss when Ruan Pienaar left Ulster. They are a better team without him. John Cooney came back from injury and off the bench to deliver a typically controlled performance, making the struggling England scrum-half, Ben Youngs, look laboured in the process.
Pienaar, now 35, seems content to play at pedestrian pace in a Montpellier team rarely capable of making third gear. They are the most frustrating team in France.
9. It isn't a particularly original observation but how well did Maro Itoje play against Glasgow? This season he has added a metre of pace but, more interesting, is the quality of timing in his support lines. Right time, right place, Maro is the man.
10. Bath battled all the way against Toulouse. A couple of points to be taken from Sunday's game. One, it really is time France sorted out their pitches, or is it? Perhaps the perception is that rugby is a winter game. Natural grass forces teams to adapt to all conditions as opposed to artificial surfaces which mean a team can play the same way from September to June.
Also, maybe someone could let Rhys Priestland know that kicking the ball away when it's the last play and you are three points down isn't the smartest of decisions. Having said that, habits are hard to break and the Welshman tends to put boot to ball rather a lot. Bath finished with just one win and draw from their pool but played some decent rugby. Next week we prepare for the Six Nations. Enjoy this one.....