Saturday 25 May 2019

The best team won - but they weren't the most exciting

Saracens' defence won them the trophy but Toulouse lifted the spirit, writes Ian McGeechan

‘The reason Saracens won was because of their work off the ball . . . they made the better hits’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘The reason Saracens won was because of their work off the ball . . . they made the better hits’. Photo: Sportsfile

Ian McGeechan

Team of the tournament

Saracens

What an outstanding final, both tactically and technically. The reason Saracens won was because of their work off the ball. It was back to what made them a brilliant team in the first place. George Kruis (my man of the match), Alex Lozowski, Vincent Koch and Alex Goode were particularly immense. Ultimately Saracens made the better hits, and wrestled the momentum away from Leinster. Kruis made 27 tackles, including two momentum-changing turnovers. The 'dominant tackles' stat of 40 v 18 told its own story. It had strong echoes of Ireland vs England in the Six Nations.

Best game

Toulouse 28 Leinster 27

Toulouse's nailbiting win in October brought this year's Champions Cup to life. It was the moment Toulouse announced they were back, and the moment Leinster appeared fallible.

Biggest fairytale

Toulon 24 Newcastle 27

It seems incredible to think now, with Newcastle about to be relegated from the Premiership, but the season started on such a high for Dean Richards's team. After finishing fourth last year, and qualifying for the Champions Cup, Newcastle were drawn away at Toulon. Their victory was fairytale stuff.

Best try

Michael Rhodes (Saracens)

After their schooling by Leinster in last year's quarter-final, Saracens had to refine their breakdown work this season. They did so very effectively, eschewing the jackal in favour of clearing away defenders entirely. The fruits of their labour were there for all to see in their 32-16 win last month over Munster. Rhodes's try in the second half, after 20-plus phases, was a classic of its kind, the final quick ball the result of their superb breakdown work. The quickly presented ball also allowed Ben Spencer to thrive at nine. When your scrum-half gets consistent quick ball, you are going to do damage. It is one of the great fallacies that you play slow ball off nine.

Best pass

Lucas Tauzin (Toulouse)

Tauzin's outrageous no-look offload that led to Maxime Medard's try in Toulouse's 22-21 win over Racing 92 in their quarter-final was sumptuous.

Biggest disappointment

Exeter

While Saracens stormed to victory, the other English clubs in the competition largely disappointed. None more so than Exeter. I feel for Rob Baxter as I know how much he would love his team to go on a European run.

But the stats do not lie. Exeter have now made Europe's top-tier competition six times since being promoted into the Premiership in 2010 but only once have they made it out of their pool, and they have never won a knockout match. The problem, when it comes to Europe, is that they simply do not seem to have a Plan B. They need to develop some add-ons

Most improved

Edinburgh

Richard Cockerill's impact on Edinburgh cannot be overstated. For so long they were the weak link in Scottish rugby but their rise and rise has been brilliant to watch, and fantastic for rugby north of the border. Those back-to-back wins against Glasgow over the festive period were a particular highlight.

What Cockerill has done so brilliantly is sort out Edinburgh's front five. That is his forte, and I don't think it is any coincidence that Leicester's pack has suffered since he left. Edinburgh now have a really solid set-piece. They are very good at stopping their opponents at source and they are not afraid to open up once the game is broken up.

Edinburgh's resurgence has also been great for Scotland; seven of Scotland's pack in that extraordinary Six Nations draw with England at Twickenham in March were Edinburgh players.

Most exciting team

Toulouse

Saracens may have won but for me Toulouse were the team of the tournament.

Their resurgence after a barren period for the club has been so heartening for fans of French rugby. Ugo Mola and Regis Sonnes deserve huge credit because they have been an absolute joy to watch.

The best thing about them is the fact that they are doing it with French players: Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont,Thomas Ramos, Sofiane Guitoune, Dorian Aldegheri, Selevasio Tolofua.

Unsung hero

Alex Goode

Saracens's Mr Consistency. Goode was outstanding again yesterday. He may not be England's cup of tea but that is fine by Mark McCall. No one played more minutes in Europe this season than Saracens' full-back, and he hardly put a foot wrong all season.

He's such a clever player. The number of hard carries he made yesterday, stepping inside, carrying, his work off the ball, allowed Saracens to keep building momentum. Outstanding.

Young player of the year

Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse)

The 25-year-old South Africa wing has been a livewire all season, scoring some unbelievable tries. His quick feet and low centre of gravity have been a joy to behold.

Telegraph.co.uk

The Left Wing: Leinster's succession plan, Munster's missing piece and the art of contract negotiations

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport