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RUGBYPASS+ Laying down a marker

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Laying down a marker

Rugby continues to throw up countless surprises weekend after weekend, but a look at Europe’s semi-finals and one thing is apparent; there is little room if you’re a Scottish, Welsh or Italian entity. The breakdown has its mix of the usual suspects, albeit with a French flavour; four French sides, two English teams and two Irish. Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs were left with heads bowed after being humbled and England will look to Bath and Leicester Tigers, those old heavyweights, to keep swinging for silverware come the end of May.

The XV did a deeper dive into the movers and shakers over the weekend…

Passing of a baton

To all intents and purposes, it looked like 2009 all over again, Leinster facing the defending European champions, their departing stand-off leaving the field with an injury, his replacement grabbing the torch and carrying it through to victory.

Except that this parallel story has more layers to it. Johnny Sexton was only 23 when he entered the fray at Croke Park in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final and expectations were low. Leinster had only two Pro14 titles to their name at this stage of their history; Munster, their opponents that day, were Irish rugby’s brand leaders.

Well, that narrative wasn’t long in changing. Sexton scored a penalty with his first kick and not only did the game turn, so did the rivalry. But before we leap from 2009 through to Saturday afternoon’s game in Exeter, we must take a detour from Sandy Park to Sydney.

It’s June 2018. Ireland, the defending Grand Slam champions, are up against it. Their captain, Rory Best, was absent with injury. His stand-in, Peter O’Mahony, got crocked midway through that Test; Seán O’Brien was also missing; Garry Ringrose, key to their defensive strategy, was gone too.

And that’s before we mention Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock or Dan Leavy. In other words, by the time Jordi Murphy — the creator of Ireland’s only try in that decisive series victory – came on to replace O’Mahony, Ireland were resorting to their eighth back-row choice. By the end, a third of the team who closed the deal to register Ireland’s first series win over Australia in the professional era were players who, 13 months ago, had never been capped.

“You are certainly building towards a situation where you can cope with injuries or setbacks,” said Joe Schmidt afterwards, “but world-class players are world-class players, and if you lose them, then you are always going to be vulnerable.”

To place those words in context, Schmidt used all bar two of his replacements in that win in Sydney. Ross Byrne stayed on the bench all the way through not just that final Test win, but the entire tour, the only player in the 32-man travelling squad who didn’t see a minute’s action in the series. What did that say about Schmidt’s faith in him then? What does his performance on Saturday say about Leo Cullen’s belief in him now, especially after he nailed those kicks, created those tries? Was this his Croke Park moment, his coming of age?

Ross Byrne
Ross Byrne put in an accomplished performance off the bench against Exeter Chiefs (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The truth is he has been coming for some time. He turned 26 this month; he has 13 Irish caps. He has started 10 Champions Cup games; Leinster have won the lot.

Over the past year, Cullen has rested Sexton and started Byrne in successive Pro14 finals, knowing he has the experience – 99 Leinster appearances is evidence of that – and also the temperament. “Ross is a great pro,” said Cullen earlier this season. “His consistency is deeply impressive.”

Sexton, of course, is much more than that. “He’s like a Bond villain,” an Australian journalist said in the aftermath of that 2018 series win. In sporting parlance, there’s no greater compliment. Without him, Ireland would never have taken that series, nor three Six Nations titles and two All Black scalps.

Time moves on. Time isn’t anyone’s friend, even a Bond villain’s. Saturday was only Sexton’s fifth start for Leinster of the season; the 35-year-old has gone off injured in four of those games. Yet even though Leinster were down; even though this was England and Europe’s champions they were up against; even though Byrne is considered to be less talented than his younger brother Harry, there was no sense of panic.

The replacement was flawless and that’s not an easy thing to be in windy Sandy Park, a place goalkickers treat with the same fear as pilots when told their flight path may veer towards the Bermuda Triangle.

Of course we must remember this was just a quarter-final, that the war has still to be won, first on French shores against La Rochelle, then most likely against Toulouse’s galacticos. If Leinster are to do that, you’d imagine they’d need their marquee men available: James Ryan, Ringrose, Caelan Doris, Leavy and Sexton. None were there for them after Sexton’s 28th-minute withdrawal at Europe’s champions, though.

But look at the quality of their replacements. Scott Fardy has played in a World Cup final; Rory O’Loughlin has won 81 Leinster outings, Ringrose 80; Jack Conan was man of the match in Ireland’s win over England; Van der Flier started and finished Ireland’s 2018 win over the All Blacks. And then there is Byrne, no longer the guy travelling home from Australia on the back seat of the plane. But now the pilot.

Mercer to leave a huge void at Bath

Bath are a frustrating side. They boast so much talent, yet they perennially underachieve. Indeed, they haven’t won a piece of silverware in 13 years.

Anyone who bore witness to their hopeless 48-3 capitulation to Bristol Bears in late January would have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a side on a permanent downward trajectory, yet three months later they are in a European semi-final.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise. Fully loaded, they boast a raft of internationals; Will Stewart, Beno Obano, Charlie Ewels, Sam Underhill, Taulupe Faletau, Ben Spencer, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga. If you add Ruaridh McConnochie and emerging talents Cam Redpath and Tom de Glanville, you’d be feeling pretty short-changed if you were Bruce Craig, who has invested tens of millions in the side.

Zach Mercer
Zach Mercer will be hugely missed by the Bath faithful (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

One name not mentioned, is Zach Mercer. The No8 is just 23 and, four years after his debut for the West Country club and a paltry two caps for England, is heading over the Channel to ply his trade with Montpellier. Mercer was magnificent against London Irish. He carried with venom off the base of the scrum, tackled remorselessly and showed the wit and finesse that saw him outshine the vaunted Blair Cowan and O’Brien opposing him.

Fittingly, he ended with the game’s final score, after running for 63 metres, making 17 carries and 11 tackles. If you did a straw poll of Bath supporters right now, very few would be glad to see the back of him and the back row would like nothing more than to inspire his side to a Challenge Cup final win, so the dusty trophy cupboard could be unlocked once again.

La Rochelle’s coming of age

In Ireland, La Rochelle is translated into La ROGhelle, a nod to influence that Ronan O’Gara – aka ROG – has had on the club. It isn’t the only place the former Ireland and Munster fly-half is continuing to affect. As Munster’s trophy cabinet stays bare, while rivals Leinster’s gets refilled annually, the calls for O’Gara to be parachuted back to Thomond Park have risen from a polite request to a screaming plea.

They’ve seen what he has done on France’s western seaboard. La Rochelle have never won a French championship in their history but O’Gara and Jono Gibbes have guided a team to second spot in the Top 14. Prior to Saturday’s thumping win over Sale, a Champions Cup semi-final had also eluded the club.

Well, you can scratch that off their to-do list. It was inevitable we’d see them drawn with Leinster, O’Gara’s old sparring partners, in the semi-finals. Munster eyes too will focus on that fixture, zoning in on a team who may be well resourced but are still achieving more than people expected. Can the same be said about this Munster set-up? To outsiders, the answer is yes. They’ve seen their results improve under Johann van Graan with European wins over Exeter, Racing, Saracens, Toulon. When they’ve exited Europe, it has been at the hands of better-resourced teams: Racing, Saracens, Toulouse.

But in Limerick and Cork, it is the memories of what O’Gara’s generation achieved in the Noughties; two Heineken Cup wins, two further trips to the final, that is causing such a clamour for him to return as coach. No doubt he’d be a good fit yet expectations need to be contained. Even if O’Gara was to come back, he may improve the team but anyone who expects them to win a Champions Cup any time soon is ignorant of the fact that there are at least half a dozen teams with better players.

Ulster stand up to sink the Saints

There was a little anxiety in the Ulster camp this week, heading to a fully-loaded Northampton Saints minus some hulking operators of their own. No Jack McGrath, a British & Irish Lion. No Sam Carter, the Wallaby lock. No Marcell Coetzee, the most prolific and brilliant carrier of ball in the Pro14, the league’s joint-top try-scorer and Ulster’s hulking fulcrum. No Iain Henderson, another Lion, the leader, ball-winner and yard-maker.

With only the conference winners contesting the final in a truncated Pro14 campaign, Ulster’s league hopes were extinguished some time ago. The Challenge Cup is their best shot at silver, and they came to Franklin’s Gardens with the best side they could put out.

There were rocky moments on Saturday night – Tommy Freeman’s fine double inside two first-half minutes had them reeling and trailing – but Ulster had the wherewithal to unseat a potent foe.

Their set-piece is their banker. They have the best lineout in the Pro14 and score more maul tries than any other side in the competition. They grabbed two more, and a clever short throw led to a bustling carry and a Jacob Stockdale try a few phases later.

Their game management in the final quarter was superb. They would not let Northampton out of their own half, whipped around the paddock shrewdly by Billy Burns and John Cooney. Even without Coetzee, they won a heap of collisions and, at the end, had the ruthlessness to take their chances.

Ulster will be back in the Midlands next month, the semi-final draw pitting them against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. It will be a fascinating battle of wit and brawn between Steve Borthwick and Dan McFarland, two of the most cerebral set-piece enthusiasts around, and two of the top mauling sides in the business.

Tigers find their teeth

Like a scrum wheeling beneath the weight of the brutes who form it, you can feel the tanker turning down at Welford Road.

For the past few years, Leicester Tigers have been steaming in one direction: backwards. Between November 2018 and April 2021, they lost 40 of 65 matches. Since getting rid of Richard Cockerill in early 2017, they’ve rattled through four coaches. They lost heavy hitters to the pay dispute of last year’s lockdown. Once English rugby’s irrepressible top dog, Leicester became a mange-ridden mongrel.

The rancour, finally, is lifting now. The vision is becoming clear, the progress tangible. Borthwick is building a team like the Tigers of old; a side founded on a ferocious set-piece and brutality in collisions; a squad laden with burgeoning East Midlands prospects.

The home form, even without a teeming Crumbie Terrace, has come good. Only Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks have won at Welford Road in 11 matches this season.

Tommy Reffell
Tommy Reffell is one of a group of talented youngsters at Leicester Tigers (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In Freddie Steward, the 6ft 5in full-back, Joe Heyes, the mighty tighthead prop, scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet, Scotland Under-20s lock Cameron Henderson and England’s newest international, George Martin, Borthwick has a core of young tyros with big futures.

The coach did without many of his England internationals for the Challenge Cup last-16 tie with Connacht, but the men he put out were still emphatically good enough to handle one of the Pro14’s top-four outfits. He brought more back for the quarter-final against Newcastle and the Tigers put their visitors away fairly comfortably again.

Sitting seventh in the Premiership, eight points off the top four, and with a semi-final against Ulster to come, there is still masses of work ahead. Ulster will be favourites to reach the Challenge Cup final; the Tigers will be outsiders to clamber into the league play-offs. Leicester have a long way to go but, at long last, they are on an upward curve.

All hail the Top 14

There was much stone throwing on social media about which domestic league is the most competitive and has the deepest resources over the weekend. Stephen Ferris, the combative former Ireland back row, in enjoying the dominance of Leinster’s deserved victory over Exeter, trumpeted the merits of the Pro14, which has been routinely criticised for its perceived structural weaknesses. He was met with ire from those seeking to defend the Premiership, which has in truth underperformed in this year’s Champions Cup.

No semi-finalist for the first time since the 2017-18 season, after the Chiefs and Sale Sharks were humbled, isn’t something to trumpet from the rooftops and it perhaps shows how much Saracens are missing from the business end of the tournament where they routinely held court. Where spectators should be looking if they are to anoint a king is over the English channel to France. Five French clubs involved in the quarter-finals has been whittled down to three in the semi-finals, and you’d be a brave man to bet on a non-French winner in the final in late May.

What’s more impressive with the French clubs is the wide array of sides who have made the final stages of the competition. While Clermont Auvergne and Racing 92, two heavyweights, fell by the wayside, Bordeaux-Begles and La Rochelle both made it for the first time, reinforcing the fact that the Top 14 – the richest league in the northern hemisphere if you look at broadcast rights – is undoubtedly the strongest.

With such talent on show, it is then a crying shame that no UK broadcaster currently has the rights for the league, depriving audiences of watching the likes of Antoine Dupont, Finn Russell, Eben Etzebeth, Virimi Vakatawa and Matthieu Jalibert on a weekly basis.

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