Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: A glorious French affair, excellent officiating and the rising Sunwolves
Last Updated: 01/04/19 3:21pm
The Champions Cup quarter-finals and Clermont's extraordinary victory over Northampton in the Challenge Cup feature in Stuart Barnes' talking points this week...
1. The Champions Cup quarter-finals were finished off with a theatrical French flourish. So often the all French European affairs have been disappointing festivals of stodge but not in Paris, not this time.
The first forty minutes between Racing 92 and Toulouse was one of the most enthralling halves of rugby I can remember. It was glorious, gripping stuff.
Toulouse - down to 14 men - but inspired by the mighty Jerome Kaino fought for every collision and came up with some of the classiest displays of offloading under pressure. The Maxime Medard try was a superlative example of pitch perfect long-passing skills and almost unbelievably good offloading.
When Medard picked that line and I could see he was not to be stopped I screamed in ecstasy. It was a thing of beauty. So too the match, with Teddy Thomas and Virimi Vakatawa constant threats for Racing while Antoine Dupont played a blinder as a makeshift 10.
He was to prove Toulouse's baby faced assassin. The second half wasn't as technically good but what a finish to the match!
2. Only a few minutes on the clock and try!!!! Racing steal a line out and forge over the line for the late winner...but hang on. Luke Pearce and his team of officials want to check for a slight tug of a Toulouse arm at the line out.
There it is, in super slow-mo, the end of Racing's hopes, the launch pad for a few words on the English referee. The sending off was a marginal call. Probably just about right.
The yellow card on Teddy Thomas soon after felt like it was a tiny bit tit for tat. That apart he was excellent. Perhaps he could do with some more French phrasing at the scrum but let's not pick for bones.
Positionally he was excellent. Verbally he commanded, without ever getting into monologue mode. Under great duress he played a profound part in both refereeing the game and managing the occasion.
3. What a contrast with what was going on in football's Premier League. Cardiff victim of one of the worst and most blatant offside decisions imaginable.
I often cite football (can you imagine if a referee in the Premier League etc) for its professionalism of officiating but on Sunday rugby ran out winners. At least they did in Paris...
4. Further south in the Auvergne we had an extraordinary 99-point affair as Clermont smashed a Northampton side who went down with their heads high. Rory Hutchinson gets better, game by game.
But I have to mention the penalty try awarded to Clermont for an illegal shoulder charge in the first half. George Clancy reached the right decision but considering Courtney Lawes was metres behind the Clermont man set to score, it took an eternity to come up with the penalty try.
Refereeing is not just about accurate decision making. It is about maintaining the flow. For this, decision making needs to be as quick as possible. In this instance we wasted minutes on what was utterly obvious. The right decision but a bad piece of refereeing nonetheless.
5. Watching those two Sunday games was a reminder of what talent France possess. Damian Penaud was extraordinary. He never looks worse than good in club colours. Vakatawa is exceptional. Even the French selection process must see that he has to be on the plane for Japan.
If France could manage their talent well, they would pose a considerable threat to one and all, despite their dreadful Six Nations showings. Their failings say a lot about the ability of Bernard Laporte to appoint the right manager and Jacque Brunel to select the right team.
6. Another point that might need making after watching some sublime stuff from these three French sides is this; Fiji produces more and more magnificent rugby players. From Yato to Raka they keep coming. What a rugby nation!
7. If we touched the heights of the sublime on Sunday there was plenty for a union fan to preen over on Saturday. I had the privilege of going to Allianz Park to cover Saracens vs Glasgow for my Sunday paper. Glasgow scored a superb try on 68 seconds.
After which Saracens shut them down with a disciplined display of territorial rugby. When they established camp in Glasgow's half they produced some potent stuff with the ball in hand. They are my favourites for a third win in four years.
8. The champions, Leinster, scraped through against Ulster in another match of massive intensity and unforgettable moments. Alas, for the outstanding Jacob Stockdale, the one no one will forget is his dropping of the ball over the try line, having sliced through half the Leinster backline.
He wasn't showboating, just not concentrating on the touch down. The scoreboard suggests Ulster would have won had he scored but there was plenty of time to play and the game would have taken another direction.
He didn't cost his team - especially when you think how few players in the world could have even got to the try line. Don't expect any such repeats in Japan.
9. Compared to the all-Ireland derby, the Munster win in Edinburgh seemed a mundane affair. Edinburgh showed their lack of experience at this knock out stage, just as Munster edged the affair through utilising theirs.
Keith Earls scored two tries to win the game, the second late enough in the game to describe it as a thriller under normal circumstances but this was anything but a normal weekend of European rugby.
10. From one end of the world to the other. The Sunwolves strike again. Having beaten the Chiefs away, they travelled to Newcastle (New South Wales) and beat the team that beat the Crusaders the previous week.
A wonderful win against the Waratahs. In England, Hartbury College beat Bedford by two points while Richmond were going down to Jersey Reds at home. `Going down' seems entirely apposite.