Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: PRO14 surge and Leinster the team to beat
Last Updated: 02/04/18 3:53pm
In this edition of talking points, Sky Sports rugby expert Stuart Barnes reflects on a weekend of high drama that ended with three PRO14 teams progressing to the last four in Europe.
1. What a marvellous match in Munster. It took an unforgettable try and some astonishing defence, not to mention the 24th man- why do we still call the crowd the 16th man when we all know the sport has evolved into a 23 man game?
From the perspective of the neutral, and most of all Munster fans, Andrew Conway's dazzling solo try four minutes from time was a dash into Munster's already storied rugby history. Toulon defenders stood, as if rooted to the spot, while he weaved to glory.
In a game where defence and attrition became the code of the road for the home team, this individual moment lit up an outstanding afternoon of rugby.
2. One man's glory is another's despair, as the old saying goes. Francois Trinh Duc has - how shall we put it - mixed reviews as a fly-half. Who in Wales has forgotten how the ball played tricks with him so recently in Cardiff?
Yet his arrival from the bench looked like it was going to finish as a memorable cameos. He carried with conviction and played a part in what I thought was the try of the day for Chris Ashton that involved a jink, a delayed pass and a flat ball to Mathieu Bastareaud.
Those who think the big man is just a battering ram were silenced when he carved a clever line from right to left, pulling Munster's defence towards him and opening space for a player with the rugby brain to see the space.
In Chris Ashton they had the man and it looked like the match-winning try. Then, the replacement fly-half missed a clearance to touch by millimetres just when Toulon needed to reset their defence. Somehow, the Munster man caught it over his head and evaded the touchline by a blade of grass.
That was the opportunity Conway needed.
3. Post match, social media seemed most interested in the manner Munster vs Toulon was officiated. A 56-minute half was pretty incredible as was the diagnosis of the try awarded to the ever-alert Conor Murray.
There are experts who claim it was a try and those who say it wasn't. Some say Toulon should have been awarded a penalty try in the first minute, others disagree. The TMO is subjective and it doesn't always give foolproof answers. All I'll say is that the officials were as diligent as they could be and made their decisions in good faith.
4. Both La Rochelle and Toulon will have left the Celtic strongholds of Scarlets and Toulon feeling the Gods were against them. On Friday night, the Scarlet's built a first-half lead doing little but await La Rochelle's concession of penalties.
La Rochelle looked as if they had run their European race by the end of round six. For the PRO14 champions it is a good achievement to make the last four, especially after their two early losses but they'll need to be better in Dublin to make the final.
5. After the excitement of the Scarlet's game, Scott Quinnell and myself were joined by the Sky production crew in our hotel restaurant where staff kindly indulged our viewing requests. There was plenty going on in the far corner of the room where one screen was showing Pau beating Stade Francais.
But, a man cannot watch everything and so we focused on the Challenge Cup game in Newcastle. Dean Richards' team were a way off their best but beat Brive without ever looking like losing.
A special mention for the outstanding distribution of Toby Flood. The veteran international made the ball sing. Great stuff.
6. Newcastle will meet Gloucester in the semi-final while Pau travel to resurgent Cardiff Blues who went to Edinburgh and ended the six-match winning streak of the Scots.
There is much to like about their young fly-half, Jarrod Evans. This was the battle of the teams on an 11-match winning run between them. But the Blues had that little bit more. With Scarlets in the Champions Cup semis and the Blues in the last four of the Challenge Cup, this has been a good year for the Welsh regions.
Coach Danny Wilson will be hoping to leave the Blues with a bang.
7. And so onto Sunday and Dublin where the favourites faced the double champions. It a little like the Six Nations game at Twickenham with the Irish team scoring early and never really looking anything but the best team.
There was plenty in the way of platitudes for the Saracens - and they have earned them with their illustrious recent achievements - but the fact is that, of the four quarter-finals, this one was always going to be dominated by the home team.
The manner of their win emphasises they are team to beat this season.
8. Dan Leavy made a superb showing. But suffice it to say, it does no harm to your chances when a bred in the bone open-side takes the field on your side.
Certainly, the Scarlets won't be wanting their back-row star, James Davies, on the wing for the best part of an hour when they try and defy form lines and repeat last season's PRO14 semi-final win against Leinster!
9. That was a heck of a performance from Racing 92. Nine-nil behind in Clermont they maintained their poise and played their way back into the contest before accelerating away to win.
Wayne Barnes made a few contentious calls that infuriated the local fans. It was a tough weekend for referees. Barnes called a Dan Carter pass flat, the TV angle showed it travelling forward. And when it left Carter's hands it was somewhere between flat and backwards.
Some saw it differently to me but again, the key word is subjectivity.
10. No Premiership teams in the Champions Cup and three sides from the PRO14. It's swings and roundabouts. Saracens masked a few Premiership issues last season which are now clear to see. Its not just player rest it's game understanding on the field.
Sort out the breakdown and your fortunes can change again. There is nothing to be triumphant or down about. Munster could easily have lost and it would have been two French and two PRO 14 teams in the last four.
Small margins, folks, small margins.