European knockout rugby seemingly never fails to deliver and that has never been truer than of this past weekend.
Saracens got the ball rolling with a ruthlessly efficient 32-16 victory over Munster at the Ricoh Arena, before Leinster booked their place in the Newcastle final with a 30-12 win in Dublin against Toulouse. For all the highs that Munster and Toulouse have given the competition this season, it was a case of a bridge too far for both of them this weekend, as Saracens and Leinster looked, comfortably, the best two sides in Europe this season.
Below is our selection of the most impressive performers from the two days of knockout rugby, but who makes your XV?
- Alex Goode, Saracens
A typically well-rounded performance from Goode, who was able to impact the game positively in attack and defence. He was strong in the air when challenging contested balls and his footwork and vision consistently allowed him to find space against the Munster defence.
- James Lowe, Leinster
Not always involved in Leinster’s big European games due to the foreign player rule in the competition, the winger made Leo Cullen think twice about dropping him for the final next month. He showed great power and balance to finish off a try early in the first half, whilst he went on a number of other incisive forays with the ball in hand.
- Chris Farrell, Munster
The outside centre was crucial to Munster staying in touch with Saracens early on at the Ricoh Arena. There was a gulf in class between the two teams and Saracens’ exerted plenty of possession and territorial pressure, but it was the excellent defensive reads and physicality of Farrell in one-on-one tackles that repeatedly shut down the English side. He carried well, too, as he stood out in a Munster back line denied decent ball.
- Robbie Henshaw, Leinster
Henshaw was incredibly lively in Dublin, frequently hitting lines as a carrier that saw him build-up considerable momentum before even taking the ball, whilst his kicking and chase work were both very effective, particularly in the first half. He was yellow carded for a deliberate knock-on, but Leinster only conceded three points during his sin-bin period, with the knock-on itself potentially having denied Toulouse a try that would have brought the French side within a score of the hosts.
- Liam Williams, Saracens
The Welsh international was imperious in the air for Saracens, as well as weaving his way through would-be Munster tacklers on multiple occasions. His good hands and dummy run helped create Mike Rhodes’ second half try, from which Saracens were able to stretch the lead and see out the game. His defensive contributions were every bit as valuable as his attacking influence, too.
- Owen Farrell, Saracens
In addition to contributing 22 points from the boot, in which he missed only one kick at goal, Farrell was the puppeteer running the show for Saracens in Coventry. He took every inch of advantage that his forward pack gave him and turned that into overlaps, field position and general composed execution in the back line. The game may have been won up front, but Farrell didn’t put a foot wrong on Saturday.
- Ben Spencer, Saracens
As performances go, Spencer’s showing on Saturday felt like a passing of the torch. He has been playing well for a number of seasons now, but Saracens have tended to go to Richard Wigglesworth in the crunch fixtures. Spencer’s distribution, kicking game, carries, control of tempo and defensive work in the semi-final suggest that a new era may have officially dawned in north London.
- Dave Kilcoyne, Munster
Kilcoyne was one of the few Munster players to come out of the province’s semi-final with real credit, repeatedly stymying Saracens close to the ruck. The loosehead got through a mountain of work in the loose in a performance that was not dissimilar to those usually put in by his opposite number, Mako Vunipola.
- Jamie George, Saracens
It’s no easy feat to have a smooth-running lineout when Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne are lining up opposite you, but that’s exactly what George delivered. He was flawless at the lineout, helped Saracens’ scrum more than hold its own, and then delivered in the loose both as a carrying option close to the ruck and a willing tackler in his side’s aggressive defensive line.
- Tadhg Furlong, Leinster
The tighthead’s conditioning well outlasted that of his opposite number and was made all the more noteworthy by the amount of work he got through. He contested the physical arm wrestle with Toulouse’s tight five, did so cleanly throughout and softened up the French side’s underbelly, for the likes of James Ryan and Sean O’Brien to go to work on in subsequent phases. He was also busy at the contact area, clearing out and spoiling with equal abandon.
- Maro Itoje, Saracens
The lock led the way for Saracens’ impressive forward effort, taking away the physicality of Munster, which is often the primary weapon in the province’s arsenal. His carrying repeatedly dented the Munster defensive line and, in turn, he delivered big hits on powerful runners such as CJ Stander and Jean Kleyn. He coughed up a couple of penalties, but generally prospered with what he was legally able to get away with at the breakdown.
- James Ryan, Leinster
Leinster’s new talisman was typically busy in Dublin on Sunday, offering himself up as a one-out runner repeatedly and often leading the province’s defensive line. He was able to get to Toulouse’s first receivers behind the gain-line a number of times and deny the French side any sort of front-foot ball or momentum. With Toulouse seemingly double-teaming both Ryan and Furlong throughout the game, the lock did exceptionally well to win as many collisions as he did.
- Rynhard Elstadt, Toulouse
Elstadt must have watched Rhodes’ performance on Saturday and seen that abrasive and physical showing as a challenge from his national compatriot. The Toulouse flanker delivered every ounce of power and work rate that Rhodes did the previous day, and he gets the nod on the basis he didn’t quite have the helping hand from his other seven forwards that Rhodes enjoyed in Coventry.
- Sean O’Brien, Leinster
Tough on Jackson Wray, who was very effective in his own right, but O’Brien was a major source of go forward for Leinster, with his carrying tough for Toulouse to deny in one-on-one situations. His offload also set up Lowe for the first try of the game and his work at the contact area was proficient, particularly in clearing out Toulouse counter-ruckers and providing Leinster with quick ball.
- Billy Vunipola, Saracens
Vunipola ended his controversial week in positive fashion on the pitch, as his bruising carries consistently broke the gain-line for Saracens and allowed them to play with tempo and relative security at the breakdown. The performance won’t make his opinions more palatable, but he took some pressure off his shoulders with people once again talking about his impact on the field, rather than off it. His late try killed off any hopes of an unlikely Munster comeback.
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