European Champions Cup: Five things we learned as Leinster, Munster, Saracens and Clermont make the semi-finals

Jack de Menezes
The Independent
Saracens beat Glasgow Warriors 38-13 to reach the European Champions Cup semi-finals: Getty
Saracens beat Glasgow Warriors 38-13 to reach the European Champions Cup semi-finals: Getty

English come up short in Dublin again

Different teams, same outcome. For Wasps, see England in the Six Nations just two weeks ago. On that occasion, the ferocity of the Ireland defence proved to be the end of Eddie Jones’s unbeaten run, though this time around it was the Leinster attack that did the damage.

Wasps’ cause was not helped by Willie le Roux’s error in dropping the ball as he elaborately dived over the try line that would have capped a beautiful move that displayed exactly why the Coventry side are willing to splash the cash on the South African as well as Australia full-back Kurtley Beale, but when the match reached a pivotal crossroads midway through the second half, it was the Irish side that delivered.

The impressive New Zealand full-back, Joey Carbery, had already caught the eye by laying on a try for Isa Nacewa early on, and it was the Kiwi who triggered the crushing counter-attack that sent Jack Conan over for the second score, extending the gap far enough to put Wasps out of the game. It was a clinical move, and the English side were sent back across the Irish Sea once again without anything for their efforts.

‘Giants’ no longer what they were

Toulouse’s run to the quarter-finals has glossed over the cracks in the French side. They languish down in tenth in the Top 14, having won less than half their league match this season, and although they came through a difficult group in almighty scrap with Wasps and Connacht, they were brutally exposed by a Munster side that looks to be rolling back the years.

Their quarter-final on Saturday was billed as a meeting between two European giants, but only one team at Thomond Park could claim to live up to that tag on Saturday. Munster recorded an emphatic 41-16 victory, inspired by the soon-to-be Irish qualified fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal who ended up with a personal haul of 21 points.

Toulouse, much like the national team a few years ago, need to trigger something of a rebuild of they are to get back to rivalling Europe’s best, and while that’s a task they should be capable of doing, it’s a shame to see the Toulouse name being dominated so easily on the biggest stage.

Saracens hitting their stride at the right time

Sunday’s encounter at Allianz Park proved the try-fest that had been predicted, yet it was Saracens who recorded an emphatic victory for the second week in a row to move into the last four. The defending European champions put 53 points past Bath last weekend, and clocked up another 38 as they powered past Glasgow Warriors in the type of fashion that suggests they can emulate last season’s double success.

Glasgow failed to enter the Saracens 22 during the entire first half, and were completely unable to gain a grip on the match as a result. After a surprising dip in form at the start of the year, Saracens look like they are back to their very best, and have the majority of their squad at full fitness as they head for the business end of the season.

With the likes of Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell back in the squad, Sarries look like the unstoppable force they proved last season, and that’s an ominous sign for the other three clubs left in the competition.

Clermont provide timely reminder of their danger

Despite the floods of money and southern hemisphere talent that the Top 14 offers, it seems somewhat strange that the French teams have gone under the radar a touch this year. Much has been made of how good the two Irish clubs look, while Saracens will not relinquish their title lightly. And yet, on Sunday night, there was an all-French clash that on paper should have been the clash of the weekend.

That it wasn’t says a lot about how Clermont Auvergne and Toulon have performed this year, and for the first 60 minutes of the match, it was easy to understand why. The clash was not lacking in determination or defensive quality, but there were few moments of eye-catching rugby, though the poor weather was partly to blame for that.

Clermont Auvergne players celebrate after their victory over Toulon (Getty)
Clermont Auvergne players celebrate after their victory over Toulon (Getty)

But just when Toulon looked like they might snatch an unlikely victory, Clermont hit the accelerator. Two tries and a snapshot drop-goal from Camille Lopez ensured the home side would make the semi-finals, and a brilliant try on the stroke of full-time should provide a firm warning for Leinster ahead of their trip to France.

Cream rises to the top

Look at the four remaining teams in the European Champions Cup and it’s hard to argue against the four best clubs in Europe this season making up the semi-finals. Perhaps Premiership leaders Wasps and European Challenge Cup semi-finalists La Rochelle would be able to press their case, but two ties made up of Leinster, Munster, Saracens and Clermont would satisfy the demands of any rugby fan.

Fergus McFadden is congratulated by Devin Toner (L) after scoring for Leinster (Getty)
Fergus McFadden is congratulated by Devin Toner (L) after scoring for Leinster (Getty)

What it means is that two fascinating semi-finals will take place in front of thousands of fans – 50,000 in Dublin for Munster vs Saracens and 40,000 for Clermont vs Leinster in Lyon – with a cracking European final guaranteed, regardless of who makes it to Edinburgh next month.

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