European rugby quarter-finals: talking points ahead of penultimate round

European rugby quarter-finals: Talking points
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The European rugby quarter-finals have finished for another year. Both the Heineken Challenge Cup and Champions Cup quarter-finals were settled last weekend, and they did not disappoint. There was plenty of drama across the two competitions.

Knowing this, Last Word on Rugby has analyzed the main talking points.

That penalty shoot-out! Breathtaking conclusion

The biggest piece around the rugby world at the moment must be the dramatic ending between Munster and Toulouse. The teams were level on points at the end of regular time. Additional extra time was still not enough to split the sides. As they had both scored three tries, the way to determine a winner is through a penalty shoot-out. Whilst this is common in sports like football, we have not seen a penalty shoot-out in this competition since Jordan Crane’s dramatic kick got Leicester Tigers through to the final of the 2009 edition.

The laws now mean that only three players from each team are required to kick. Those three players had to be still on the pitch when the final whistle was blown so if Connor Murray had not come back on due to Simon Zebo’s head injury, he would not have been allowed to take part. It begins with six kicks with three taken on the 22 from the centre and 15 yards in from each touchline. Then the other three are taken from the same positions on the 10-metre line. Then, if all square, it becomes a sudden-death shoot-out. We did not reach this stage though as Toulouse triumphed 4-2 after Ben Healy missed both his attempts and Connor Murray missed his second kick.

It is a cruel way for Munster to exit a competition they love so much but what a great spectacle. Toulouse was not at their best and the crowd in the Aviva Stadium was incredible as the Red Army got behind their team but ultimately Toulouse showed why they are reigning champions as they battled through another round of European rugby quarter-finals.

Most fans loved seeing this rare event decide the winner. However, some were not so sure this should be how the game should have ended.

One suggestion is that there should be a golden point – like you see in the NRL and in Super Rugby. This would entail the teams playing until one had broken the deadlock; first to score wins. Fans have seen it used regularly in Super Rugby games, so it is not unheard of in Rugby Union. This law variation provides drama of a different kind but, it also has its pros and cons. It has fans and it also has its detractors.

One factor to alter the playoff is that it would allow ‘all members of the team’ to have an impact and it would be rugby in a more traditional sense. However, the team that kicks off first could have a much greater territorial advantage and with bodies already destroyed after 100 minutes of play, is that the best option from a player welfare perspective?

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Henry Arundell: fresh star of the European rugby quarter-finals

From kicking to try scoring, Henry Arundell scored one of the greatest tries in European history. It was not enough to get the win but it is a score that will go down in history. A great kick chase from Villiere off his kick put the pressure on Phipps who was just about able to get the offload away to Arundell who was almost on his try line. Then the magic began.

The young London Irish back looked up to see a tired and unorganized Toulon defensive line in front of him and decided to give it a go. He showed incredible speed, footwork and vision as he beat seven defenders to go over in the right-hand corner. Late in the game, it gave Irish one last shot at glory. A missed conversion though and the exiles were unable to register another score.

Magic like this is sure to get attention and he may have some choices as to his international allegiance. He played for England at the under-20s level yet he qualifies for Wales and Scotand as well.

England will likely get the first shot at his services but Jones [as is his choice] may choose to ignore him. This would leave the door open and he could join the likes of Tompkins in the red of Wales. Another option would be to play under Gregor Townsend in a blue jersey. Wherever he goes, this man is a star and will be a star for many years to come.

London Irish have some incredible players in their back-three, so much so that Arundell started this game on the bench, but soon they will have no choice but to find a space for the tyro in the starting lineup.

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Leinster and the French dominate the European rugby quarter-finals

Once again, we reach the semi-finals of the Champions Cup and the teams left consist of Leinster and three sides from the Top 14. This time Racing 92 replace Bordeaux Bègles while Toulouse and La Rochelle are aiming for a second successive final.

This raises several questions about the reasons why this is the case. We know the Welsh regions are in an awful state and something needs to be done there. The Scottish and Italian sides have never really made much of an impression on the knockout stages of the Champions Cup. What of the English teams though? Saracens have won this tournament three times in the last six years and Exeter triumphed as champions in 2019/20. Leicester too, have been wonderful in domestic competition this season and won all of their games in Europe up until they were comprehensively dismantled in the first half against Leinster. So why has there been no English representation in the semi-finals of the top European club competition?

Talking point 1: Leinster v the Gallagher Premiership

The Irish players have central contracts and so often do not play in games that are of less importance which leaves them fresh and ready for the big games. There is private ownership of English clubs though. As such, the club owners have less incentive to keep their players fresh for European or International duty.

Another potential theory is that; Leinster can rest their players because their league is less competitive.

The big teams can therefore put out a second-string side and still come away with a victory. Alternatively, as was the case for Leinster recently, the best sides have such a comfortable buffer that they could put a greater focus on Europe and not send their best players on a long trip down to South Africa. In England, many of the best players have to play every week because so many teams have been in touching distance of the playoffs this year.

Talking point 2: French Top 14 v the Gallagher Premiership

The French sides do not have centrally contracted players either. In addition, their league has seen six different champions since 2012 whereas Leinster has won six titles in that period including the last four. What the French sides do have though is a much greater salary cap. The salary cap in the Gallagher Premiership is £5 million and one marque player. Whereas the salary cap in the Top 14 is €11.3 million which is roughly £10 million. It is double what is available in the Premiership. This means two things. Firstly, they can afford to offer higher wages and so can out-compete English sides for top talent. Secondly, they can create a bigger squad of players.

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Their first choice teams are full of superstars and they have other stars on the bench. Then a wider squad rotates in to cover for injury and ensure no player is overworked. This means that when a top-end player gets injured in the Gallagher Premiership he is replaced by a recent academy graduate but in the Top 14, an experienced international player would come in.

Previously the Gallagher Premiership had a larger cap. The impact of COVID-19 means cuts needed to be made for the sustainability of the league.

Never fail, English joy in the Challenge Cup playoffs

English clubs will learn valuable lessons from this year’s round of European rugby quarter-finals. Furthermore, while there has been little joy in the Champions Cup, Saracens and Wasps are through to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup. Saracens put in a display that will have the rest of Europe on notice to defeat Gloucester on Friday night. Then on Saturday Wasps edged a close affair with Edinburgh to book their place in the next round.

Wasps will travel to Lyon who are fresh from a home victory over Glasgow Warriors. Lyon’s form has been patchy but they have only lost one match at home since February last year. Wasps are going to have a big challenge ahead but with players such as Alfie Barbeary in great form, anything is possible in knockout rugby.

Later Saracens go to Toulon in a clash that amazingly contains six Champions Cup titles between the two sides. And both teams have serious ambitions to be Champions Cup finalists for completely different reasons. RC Toulon has struggled with consistency since their ‘galaxy of superstars’ retired yet their new coaching setup is working wonders. Saracens meanwhile suffered relegation to the English Rugby Championship [following repeated salary cap breaches]. They are working their way back to former glory – promoted back to the Premiership and well placed in that league – and naturally for the Sarries, stacked full of international talent.

Every one of the matches completed was of a first-class level. So admirers of the European rugby quarter-finals will be glued to their screens as the tensions rise across Ireland and France this weekend.

Heineken Champions Cup 2021/22 semi-finals fixture list:

Saturday, May 14 – Leinster v Toulouse | Racing 92 v La Rochelle

Challenge Cup semi-finals: Sat May 14 – Lyon v Wasps | Sun May 15 – RC Toulon v Saracens

 

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