Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Champions Cup final reflections and domestic semi-finals
Last Updated: 15/05/18 11:52am
Stuart Barnes reflects on the Champions Cup final and looks at the Guinness PRO14 and Aviva Premiership semi-finals in his talking points this week.
1. Congratulations to Leinster. They have beaten the best of all three leagues and deserve their fourth European title. More importantly it is a first for many of them; the breakthrough has been made early. They were made to sweat from the first to last minute by Racing 92, here's a few key moments that helped sway the game.
2. The injury to Pat Lambie, three minutes in, was a hammer blow. It compounded the late withdrawal of Dan Carter from the bench.On came Remi Tales and unfortunately, off went any semblance of control from fly-half. Teddy was doing a magnificent impersonation of Maxime Macheneaud at the base of the scrum but Remi seemed to run from the responsibilities; maybe that is harsh but he wasn't looking for the ball like Johnny Sexton.
And that late drop goal to take the game into extra time? Carter, supposed to take to the field for the last 20 or 30 minutes, was signed for such moments. That double injury blow was desperately bad luck for the underdogs.
3. The weather; Northern Spain is renowned for its grey skies and it dumped it down on Saturday. The elements favoured Racing. Leinster play a pretty basic but dynamic one out game but with such slippery conditions and a greasy ball, everything was that little bit less accurate.
It enabled an already strong defence to dominate the breakdown even more. Leinster didn't make a mass of handling mistakes but nor did they take the odd risk to change the point of attack and shift the game away from the strength of Racing.
4. I think it was the 56th minute when the 21-year-old Ryan stole a line out from the former Munster Ryan. The younger man - James - was the best player on the pitch.
Leone Nakarawa was voted European Player of the Season but Ryan was the most influential lock/player on the pitch. 21 years of age, 21 professional victories and no defeats. A great way to celebrate your 21st, with a European Champions Cup victory to go with a Grand Slam. It is fair to say it has been the rugby year of the young man's life. It's up there as one of Ireland's great years too.
5. An Irish team will be playing in the PRO14 final in Dublin on May 26. Leinster are at home to Munster in the semi-final and will be overwhelming favourites. But European finals take plenty from a team, psychologically perhaps even more than physically. If Munster can lift their game from the mediocrity of their effort against Edinburgh it could be an awful lot closer than many think.
6. One of the two sides will play the winners of Friday night's non-Irish affair between Glasgow and Scarlets. Unless Dave Rennie has been keeping a few rugby rabbits up his sleeve, the defending champions look to have an outstanding chance of returning to Dublin for a crack at consecutive titles.
Rennie is a master tactician but the power lines have been down too long for Glasgow fans to be confident. The Scarlets were always going to beat the Cheetahs in the play-off match. Now, this is the acid test, to see if they have the right stuff to rebound from that Champions Cup semi-final.
7. Last week I wrote that I needed no fence to sit on; Leinster could not lose. Well, in the end I was right but not before a few scares and a few moments of stupidity (Teddy Thomas, what were you thinking running towards touch after your pack stole a line out?).
I'll call a 'non-fence' game in Exeter. I cannot see Newcastle getting near the Chiefs but that takes nothing away from Dean Richards and his men. To finish fourth is a tremendous effort and a reminder of Richards' mastery as a manager. The bulk of the press will be off to Saracens to see whether Danny Boy can stop the storm blowing from Saracens direction. Wasps have the capacity to shock Saracens but I strongly fancy Saracens to make it to Twickenham for a juicy Exeter v Saracens final.
8. Cipriani versus Farrell on Saturday. Could the two be united in the red rose of England in South Africa? A headline performance against the England captain will not harm his chances, at fly-half as a starter or full-back, as a finisher. A year ago whatever Eddie Jones did was feted, now he is splitting the media down the middle. A tour party to win in South Africa not Japan was one headline. Me, I think it is not so bad a pick.
9. Cipriani obviously believes he will be doing more than holding the tackle bags on tour having joined Gloucester. The money would have been much better in either France or Japan (although neither of those countries boasts the delights of Cheltenham and a certain National Hunt course) but he needs to be in England to make the trip to the World Cup.
Danny and the Shed...now that is one of the weirder rugby marriages. I am sure they'll be happy. More cheerful news is that James Haskell has also found an English bolthole in Northampton. He too can pursue his World Cup dream although he'll do well to knock Jamie Gibson out of the team. I would have taken Gibson to South Africa, he has been outstanding in a struggling side.
10. Which leads up back to where we began in Bilbao. A few weeks ago, I suggested that my idea of a bolter for the England party was Cardiff Blues' perennial replacement, Olly Robinson. Andy's son was on the field after only a few minutes as Josh Navidi left the field with what appeared to be an injury to rule him out of Wales summer tour.
The Blues didn't miss a beat as Wales' player of the season was replaced by the Englishman. He carries hard, often and intelligently, he knows the breakdown, is young with room for improvement, has a huge engine and heart. Don't tell me Robinson is unavailable because he plays in Wales while the Hurricane, Brad Shields, tours.
On that controversial point, as a journalist, broadcaster and rugby lover, the eligibility rule makes me queasy but were I Jones, I'd pick him if I thought him good enough to make a difference. That's his job. If you don't like it take it up with World Rugby, not Eddie Jones....oh, I have digressed, well done the Blues too.