Ups and downs for potential Lions, new questions over Mike Ford’s brief future at Toulon, Saracens next in line to try and tame the Aviva beast – and what happened with the Ospreys?
Last week, Chris Ashton said in an interview with The Guardian that “my missus is closer to a Lions tour than me.” The Lions squad to tour New Zealand this summer is announced just a couple of days before the Champions Cup semifinals, and though the Saracens’ winger’s opinion of his chances may be right, it’s not for want of trying. He scored twice against Glasgow to join Vincent Clerc at the top of the all-time European marksmen list with 36 tournament tries as Sarries shredded Glasgow. But his defensive frailties were also on show, as he let Lee Jones slip free for the visitors’ opening try – although it could be argued it was not entirely his fault.
Warren Gatland will also have noticed Finn Russell’s kicking radar went awry at the wrong moment, and may well also be sweating on news about Jonny Gray’s fitness. Another fly-half, Dan Biggar, did himself no favours with a petulant and patchy performance for Ospreys against Stade Francais in the Challenge Cup, but Simon Zebo did his chances no harm with a nerveless and faultless display at fullback against Toulouse. And playmaker fullback-cum-fly-half Joe Carbery’s status as armchair pundits’ bolter-in-chief must be assured after an astonishing man-of-the-match performance in Leinster’s win over Wasps.
There’s no place like home
All four host teams won at a canter in the weekend’s Champions Cup quarterfinals. It was the first time that every one of the last-eight encounters in Europe’s premier club rugby competition was won by a margin of 14 points or more – and, frankly, not one of the visiting sides looked likely to join Saracens in an exclusive club of visiting winners. In the past 16 quarterfinals, the Premiership side is the only team to have won on the road, and they have done it twice. Of all the losing visitors, Wasps possibly have the biggest grievance. Not because they should have beaten Leinster in Dublin; far from it, they were not so much second as maybe third best. But a late, late refereeing error in Galway in December cost them what turned out to be crucial home advantage.
Toulon days over for Mike Ford?
Ford’s days at the helm of ailing French rugby superpower Toulon were numbered, anyway, with the long-running will-they-won’t-they bromance between president Mourad Boudjellal and incoming director of rugby Fabien Galthie finally formalised last month by the signing of contract. But French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique has reported the weekend’s Champions League quarter-final defeat at Clermont may have been the last straw. According to the report, Boudjellal may be considering handing over firefighting duties for the rest of the season to forwards coach Marc Dal Maso, with injured duo Matt Giteau and Vincent Clerc helping out. If it all sounds just a little desperate, that’s because it probably is. There is not much time left to concentrate on the league, and Toulon’s place in the end-of-season play-offs – not to mention next year’s Champions Cup – remains far from certain.
Saracens turn to try to break Dublin hoodoo
In recent weeks, first England and then Wasps succumbed to the pressure of Irish intensity on and off the pitch in Dublin. In three weeks time, it’s Saracens’ turn to head across the Irish Sea to face a Celtic challenge in the second Champions Cup semifinal at fortress Aviva. As defending champions and the only English Premiership side standing in the competition, Mark McCall’s Sarries will hardly lack for motivation – but it’s rather easier to believe their mental and physical resilience means they are more likely to rise to the challenge than the two sides that tried and failed before them.
How did the Ospreys fall?
How did Ospreys lose their Challenge Cup quarter-final to Stade Francais? They had home advantage – or at least Principality advantage, as their usual ground, Liberty Stadium was being used for a soccer match. They dominated possession (70%) and territory (76%), made more breaks (12-3), beat more defenders (31-2) and ran twice as far with the ball in hand (656m to 330m). Only their scrum struggled. And, yet, the only stat that really matters reveals they lost 21-25.
Some of the Welsh side’s problems can be laid at referee Matthew Carley’s feet, with several decisions feeding the discussion topic needs of any rugby club’s Bullshit Corner forum for at least a week. Stade’s Josaia Raisuqe was sent off in the second-half for a second yellow-card offence when his first – a stamp on Keelan Giles – probably should have been a straight red. He ruled out one score for a forward pass that probably wasn’t, and allowed another that was scored after a pass that probably was. And glaciers move faster than Stade’s forward Hugh Pyle did when he was retreating from an offside position before the Pro12 side’s full-back Sam Davies decided to randomly pass him the ball that allowed him to release Julien Arias to score.
But the inescapable and inconvenient truth is Ospreys really have only themselves to blame. They let Stade make numerical disadvantage count, conceding two tries while a player up. Dan Biggar missed a penalty from in front of the posts and later failed to make touch with a penalty two minutes from time as Ospreys pressed for what would have been a late winning try. And they missed chance after chance after chance to put the game beyond the Parisians’ reach.