Saturday 23 March 2019

Five things we learned from the Pool stages of the Champions Cup

Provinces must respond to raising of bar by wealthy Anglo-French elite

Ulster's Darren Cave goes over to score his side's third try in what was one of the most impressive individual performances of the weekend. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Ulster's Darren Cave goes over to score his side's third try in what was one of the most impressive individual performances of the weekend. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

And so, after 268 tries and 2,495 points, we know the quarter-finalists of the Champions Cup - three French, four English and one Irish hints at a watershed for the game.

Time will tell whether Irish domination may be wilting - Leinster will rebut those claims - but already history has been made.

Wasps and Bath became the first clubs ever to lose their opening two games and still qualify, while Wasps and Saracens recorded historical low points totals to qualify.

It is inarguable that this was a hugely competitive six-round series; last term, most of the pools had been decided by round six.

This time around, even the great Toulouse conspired to toss away qualification despite winning their first four games.

The richest club in the world may have won this title four times but on five occasions they have failed to even make the knock-out stages.

The unpredictable can still happen; Toulon await to prove otherwise. Here are five things we learned from an always captivating European qualification series.

Curse of semi-final draw might halt Leinster's march

The traditional curse of the semi-final draw for Irish teams may still hamper Leinster's dreams of matching Toulouse as four-time winners.

Eight of the last 11 Irish sides have had 'away' draws in the semi-finals.

Leinster did, however, win their last one and that was in France too, when they beat Clermont in an epic en route to their third final success in 2012.

Famously, they also beat Munster at Croke Park in 2009, when their rivals were the designated 'home' semi-final team.

Funnily enough, Leinster lost their first three semi-finals at home in the competition; albeit that includes the inaugural year when there were no quarter-finals.

At least they know that the quarter-final omens are good because, in the 18 years of quarter-finals in European competition, 16 of the eventual champions played their last-eight ties at home - Leinster, in 2009, succeeded Munster in bucking the trend.

Three into one won't go - who will be Ireland's No 13?

As the Six Nations draws near with a visit to struggling Italy, Brian O'Driscoll's anointed successor Robbie Henshaw seems likely to be shunted in one position to accommodate a form partner on his outside.

The clear favourite is Luke Fitzgerald, whose outstanding form for Leinster and, most pleasingly for Joe Schmidt, his defensive nous, represent a huge boon after a nightmare injury run.

Jared Payne started the November series at No 13 but injury has hampered his season, albeit his return at the weekend militated against his own comments ruling him out of contention.

Indeed, it was his Ulster colleague Darren Cave, who shone the brightest up north with a dazzling hat-trick against Leicester, while Keith Earls was also in try-scoring form for Munster in their turkey shoot against Sale reserves.

However, a midfield combination of Henshaw and Fitzgerald looks to be nailed on as Schmidt prepares to name his first side of the year for that Italy clash.

It's about quality, not money, as best teams reach last eight

A quartet of Premiership qualifiers represents the best return for clubs from England since the 1997/98 season, but all of them have to travel; with a historic record of only 25pc for away quarter-finalists, it is likely only one of them will make it through.

Still, they have performed more creditably than in recent times and the English league banked more wins in qualifying (42) than either the Pro12 (37) or Top 14 (39).

There will be shrieking socialist wailings that the competition's revamp has unfairly skewed matters; this is nonsense, of course and discredits the wonderful successes of Irish rugby in the last decade against mightier opposition. Toulouse, the club with the highest turnover in club rugby, ended the qualifying on their backsides.

Glasgow, a relative minnow, were in a pool containing both the aforementioned giants and moneyed Bath; they were within inches of advancing when Sean Maitland - who will soon leave for bigger money in England - almost scored a late try.

Glasgow's creditable efforts should silence the Munster apologists who droned on about how the competition's seeding didn't do them any favours; Munster, like Ulster, simply weren't good enough. As ever, the Welsh and Italians weren't good enough either.

In the past three seasons, the three top quarter-final seeds lost at home, reflecting the inequity of the qualifying stages.

There remain kinks in the system but, predominantly, class, as should be the case, won out. It's called professionalism and Irish rugby must respond, rather than retreat.

Pro 12 wipeout - a one-off or sign of things to come?

The Pro12 success in Europe has effectively been led by Ireland since its inception as nobody from Italy, Scotland or Italy has ever won the title.

Over the last decade, there have been at least two provinces in the knock-out stages on all occasions except for 2008 - few quibbled as that was the season Munster claimed their second triumph.

In 2012 and 2014, Ireland had all three of Munster, Leinster and Ulster in the last eight, while the purple patch was franked by the fact Munster and Leinster lifted the title five times in nine years.

Wales have missed out on qualification five times in the past 10 years and have only been in the quarter-finals once in the past four; Ospreys, their leading club side, have lost twice to Treviso in recent times.

Scotland - who have only two active regions compared to Wales' four - have produced just one qualifier in a decade;: Michael Bradley brought Edinburgh all the way to a 2011-12 semi-final , beating Toulouse en route, before losing narrowly to Ulster.

This season, France boast three qualifiers, England four and Ireland one whereas the previous five seasons saw Ireland produce three, two, five, two and three again.

Six Nations pointers - hope for Welsh despite regions' woe

Ahead of the mouth-watering Six Nations opener with England at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Friday week, the form of Wales' key exiles, Bradley Davies (Wasps), Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro) and George North (Northampton) are a boon for Warren Gatland's men.

Wales' record of triumphing in the Six Nations in direct disproportion to their record in European Cups remains a startling anomaly.

Ireland, who source the bulk (24) of their extended championship squad from just one team (Leinster), will hope to be inspired more by the form of the country's sole Champions Cup qualifiers, rather than under-firing Munster and Ulster.

Irish Independent

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