Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Champions Cup final individual battles and Newcastle's relegation
Last Updated: 06/05/19 5:52pm
Some key individual battles between Saracens and Leinster in the Champions Cup final along with Newcastle's relegation are discussed by Stuart Barnes in this week's talking points.
1. Less than a week until the 'Champions of Champions' European final. Leinster, four times winners and defending champions, against Saracens, whose three titles on the trot target was derailed in Dublin last season by who else but Leinster?
This time the two teams meet in Newcastle. That will strip something of the home advantage factor Leinster so often enjoy at the Aviva Stadium. Yet an English venue will not play into Saracens' hands. Great team that they are, the support base does scant justice to their pre-eminence of recent years.
There's a long way to go before kick-off and reams of words to be written (some of them by me today and next Friday) so I won't go into great detail but here are a few key battles that could sway the game.
The collision of Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong is the stuff of headlines. Prop forwards have come a long way from the day of muddied scrummagers, fighters and drinkers.
These two will set the tone. James Ryan was the man of last season, Maro Itoje dominated in 2017. Does the Irish pretender have the engine to keep going and eclipse the immense influence of the Saracen lock?
The final question regarding the forwards...Jack Conan is getting better by the game. He's up against Billy Vunipola who is also getting better by the game but is still some way off his pre-injury monstrous majesty. Can one of them boss the gain line to allow their respective half backs the front foot?
And so to Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell. Neither have been absolute authorities this season. Both will be targeted, both temperamentally and physically. Leaders, kickers, king makers...the headline act and then there's the ability of the back threes to handle the high balls, the aerial bombardment. Alex Goode should have been in the running for the Players' Player of the Season in England.
He has been Saracens' star man but he will be tested by Sexton and that probing kicking game of the champions. Rob Kearney is a commanding presence in the air. He'll need to be, as will his wings, against Ben Spencer who could well be playing for a place on the plane to Japan...but that is a whole other story. Let's allow our imaginations to focus on the European Champions Cup final, for now.
2. Back to what has been. Benetton led the way in last week's Ten Talking Points. They almost grabbed the headlines again. One refereeing call away from beating Munster in a PRO14 play-off in Limerick. A cruel way to end one of the most underestimated of seasons. As for Munster, they are starting to look tired now. This has been the case for the last few seasons. I don't see them lifting the PRO14 title this time around.
3. Can anyone bar Saracens or Exeter lift the Gallagher Premiership? They have been a lot better than the rest of England pretty much all the season but I'll reiterate what I wrote last week; Northampton are improving at a rate of knots and with Exeter short of competitive games, due to their early European demise and English consistency, they appear potentially vulnerable, even at Sandy Park. The odds remain good for a Saracens versus Exeter final but I wouldn't rule out the Saints in Devon.
4. Newcastle have gone. And with it hopefully the ridiculous talk of late changes to the system of promotion and relegation. Yes, it is not ideal for the English game to be so poorly represented at Premiership level in the northern part of the country but Newcastle are good enough to bounce back whereas late changes to the rules of the game would see the sport struggle to maintain its professional reputation. From fourth to relegation, it shows how little there is between teams, other than the top two.
5. Leicester are safe but have a huge amount of work to do. Watching them lose at Harlequins was like watching a different club from those ferocious Tigers of old. The discrepancy between the two tighthead props, Dan Cole and Kyle Sinckler, epitomised the difference between the teams - and Harlequins are hardly setting the English club game alight right now.
6. Super Rugby has been, how should we say it, less than Super so far but Saturday morning's match between the Highlanders and the Chiefs was a fabulous game. 31-31 but it was high-class attack rather than loose defence that dominated in Dunedin. It was a reminder that New Zealand remain miles ahead of the rest of the world in terms of speed and skill. Not unbeatable, of course, but any side with Aaron Smith at scrum-half is not going to be easy to beat.
7. Earlier on Saturday morning the Hurricanes ripped the Rebels to pieces for half an hour before a fine second-half fightback by the Australian team. In that match-sealing first 30 minutes we saw enough of Beauden Barrett's pace to petrify the watching world. I am hoping the lads at Sky are going to let you watch his glorious try at this point in the column...boys?
8. Mixed feelings in France. I was delighted to see Agen win in Grenoble and secure their safety for another season. It is such a small but sensational rugby town. In this age of Big Money Big City clubs, staying afloat is quite something.
9. On that note, it was disappointing to see Castres lose at home to Money Bags Montpellier. It is getting awfully close for those barrage places. In a lower league my great friend, Richard Hill, secured a place in what is effectively the third tier final for Rouen. Normandy has never been a rugby region. It could be very soon after they saw off the once mighty Dax in the semi-final. I'll be rooting for Rouen in the two-legged final. Pro Deux beckons.
10. Finally, France, still. Shaun Edwards has been lined up as their defence coach. It is going to be quite a clash of cultures. Louis Picamoles will never have been coached by anyone like it. Off your backsides, boys, there's defensive work to be done.