Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: European Champions Cup semis provided no shocks
Last Updated: 23/04/19 3:14pm
The winners and losers of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup semi-finals are discussed in Stuart Barnes' latest talking points...
1. It's undoubtedly the European Champions Cup final meritocrats wanted. Saracens and Leinster have been the two outstanding teams in the tournament.
The current English champions and twice European champions in the last three years have won all eight games en route to the final.
They were a little scruffy at times in their pool games but upped the intensity and accuracy of their game in the knock stages. My bookmakers make them a shade favourites to win.
2. Their opponents, Leinster, defending European and Pro 14 champions, lost away to Toulouse in the pool stages but have twice beaten them, admittedly on home turf since. Toulouse had a terrific first few minutes on Sunday but within ten minutes the writing was on the wall.
The same can be said of the game in Coventry. These were not great matches from the perspective of the neutral. It was all too obvious, all too early on, which sides were set to head to the North East, St James' Park and Newcastle.
3. On Saturday it was Saracens ability to pace the performance that most impressed from my sun-drenched seat in the Ricoh Arena.
They kicked Munster into the places they wished to be in the first quarter, forced the Irishmen to defend (which they did with great credit) in the second and finished them off with 13 unanswered points in the third quarter.
This was controlled rugby of the highest quality. Saracens are in much better shape than a year or so ago when Leinster beat them decisively in Dublin.
4. Billy Vunipola was voted man of the match but Ben Spencer would have been my pick. I saw Dimitri Yachvili at the ground, working for French TV. I bet the old maestro would have loved the way the Saracens scrum-half guided his team around the pitch.
In the process, he made life hell for Munster full-back, Mike Haley. I know that Eddie Jones has an aversion to evidence provided by the club game but this was a pressure scenario and Spencer put barely a boot wrong.
Jones loves a box kicker and there's none better, including Richard Wrigglesworth, who looks set to stay on the bench for the key contests to come.
5. Spencer outplayed Conor Murray and with that Munster were beaten in the kick-chase game. Leinster will be a tougher team to expose aerially.
Rob Kearney is as experienced and competent as full backs come beneath the high ball.
It may be that the talented Jordan Larmourr will be targeted with the wonderfully in form and aerially outstanding Liam Williams hunting down the assorted kicks of the half-backs and Alex Goode.
The former Scarlet has enjoyed an excellent season, for both club and country.
6. Good to see Johnny Sexton back in form. He wasn't perfect but, having not started a game for his province since late December and having endured an awkward Six Nations, few expected perfection.
What he delivered was game management; he was the man around whom Leinster's game revolved.
Reams of words will be written on the subject of Sexton versus Farrell in the weeks leading up to the final. It won't be that simple but it's going to be a hard subject for the English and Irish press to resist.
7. What about the losers? For Munster defeat heralded a seventh semi-final loss since they recorded victory. It is not a bogey.
Rather Munster are just not good enough. Instead of saying they fail to perform at this stage, it's probably more accurate to credit them for reaching this late stage so often.
They defend heroically but cannot control the breakdown or territory as they did in the era of Ronan O'Gara and company.
There has been much debate regarding the small crowd of just over 16,000 on Saturday. Maybe one of the reasons was that the magnificent Munster hordes saw the 32-16 defeat coming, like most of us. They still eclipsed Saracens supporters.
That was no surprise either. As for Toulouse, they badly missed a regular ten, they made a mess of not competing against Leinster's driving line outs and they looked a little puffed, off their game.
They will come again. They are a great club in the process of rediscovering themselves. Not quite good enough for mighty Leinster but they have a major say in the Top 14 which you can see exclusively live on Sky.
8. There are worries the European Challenge Cup final will not be supported on a Friday night in the North East. Especially when the finalists happen to be Clermont Auvergne and La Rochelle. It's a long journey for both sets of supporters.
Fortunately, these are two of France's best-supported clubs, colourful, passionate and there's a whole lot of them.
They can be brilliant as both Northampton and Harlequins know to their cost this season but finding the mental strength to keep going for eighty minutes remains a problem for a club who, unfortunately, do merit the tag of serial chokers. If La Rochelle can just hang on in there...
9. Sean O' Brien will not be playing in Champions Cup semi-finals, probably ever again. Instead, he will see his career out trying to keep newly promoted London Irish in the Premiership, that is if there remains relegation.
The concept that has kept the Premiership so exciting for so much of this season. As for the Premiership winners taking on the Pro 14 champions, who cares?
In an age of player welfare concern, this pointless fixture is an extra and utterly unnecessary game. So too the thought of a 'World Championship' match between the best of the Hemispheres.
10. World Cup watch: Aaron Smith is being kept on ice, on the bench. The All Black scrum half is having a gentle introduction into this World Cup year.
He was on the field Saturday morning in the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders against the Blues for less than a quarter of the game but the speed and accuracy of his pass, the decisiveness of his decision making and the manner in which he dictates the role of the forwards was a pleasing reminder of what a world class scrum half resembles.