Saturday, June 25, 2022

Premiership clubs falter in Europe, Farrell dissent, tired Toulouse and France’s new stars

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The big talking points of rugby action this weekend

Racing 92 or La Rochelle will face Leinster in the Champions Cup final at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on May 28, and the day before Lyon will face Toulon in the Challenge Cup at the same venue.

The weekend’s defeats for Saracens and Wasps in the Challenge Cup semi-finals in Toulon and Lyon respectively make it only the fourth time in 25 seasons of full participation in European competitions that will see no Premiership team in either Champions Cup – or Challenge Cup final.

The previous England finals came in the 2009-10, 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons and since then only the Saracens have regularly made dents in the Champions Cup at the highest level and we know what happened to them. The entry of South Africa’s URC teams next season is sure to intensify the competition and in tough financial times some English club voices grumble negatively about the lack of rewards from participating in Europe.

In 2021, the three main leagues – Premiership, URC and French Top 14 – have signed up for eight more years of European tournaments under the aegis of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), but Dominic McKay could be navigating choppy waters again to become permanent chairman of the EPCR promoted. McKay held various managerial positions at Scottish Rugby for 13 years and was briefly CEO of Celtic Football Club last year.

A late penalty from Saracens’ England captain Owen Farrell, who failed to make contact, was decisive in the London club’s thrilling 25-16 semi-final defeat in Toulon on Saturday night in the Challenge Cup.

And Farrell came under scrutiny again for his relationship with referees when Ireland Test official Andy Brace had to warn him over his words in the first half, including saying ‘enough, enough, enough’.

One take on this is that the Saracens miss their retired club skipper, the indomitable and relentless center Brad Barritt, while ex-scrum half Richard Wigglesworth, now at Leicester, was another, sharing the leadership burden with the belligerent Farrell.

“The only voice we heard, and we probably heard it too many times because it upset the referee, was Owen Farrell,” TV analyst Ben Kay said. There was a massive battle between Maro Itoje and Toulon’s Springbok suspension Eben Etzebeth as the Saracens’ line-up began to crumble and now, as with all English sides, it is time to focus on the league again for the remainder of the season.

Leinster held Ireland’s final with a strong win over five-time winners Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-finals, although questions about the format of the competition arose when home captain Johnny Sexton said the French visitors were exhausted from their quarter-finals in extra time a week earlier at the same venue in Dublin win against Munster.

“Toulouse played 100 minutes last week; Munster softened them for us,” said Sexton, who looks like a youngster at 36, alongside Toulon No 8’s Sergio Parisse, who turns 39 in September. Next season there will be a three-week break between the European semi-finals and the final on May 20, while the Premiership final in England remains the season’s conclusion, although it has been brought forward to May 27 to make time for that Finals to create national team to prepare for the World Cup.

Amid Toulouse’s disappointment, his scrum half Antoine Dupont scored another stunning effort that began with his football block tackle against Jamison Gibson-Park. And even the almighty Dupont could have a rival for the potential World Cup 2023 hero on home soil if all-action Toulon winger Gabin Villiere continues his amazing act of instinctive try-scorer and looming collapse.

France are also well-manned at half-time with Toulon’s Louis Carbonel and Leo Berdeu, top scorer in the top 14 who helped Lyon pass Wasps in the other Challenge Cup semi-final on Saturday, among those who saw Toulouses super smooth Support Romain Ntamack.

There will be a new name in the women’s Premier 15 final when Exeter Chiefs host Bristol Bears in next Sunday’s back-to-back semi-finals, while champions Harlequins meet former winners Saracens.

In the final games of the regular season on Saturday, Exeter beat Bristol in a dress rehearsal at Sandy Park, with discipline an issue as referee Adam Wookey sent Bristol’s Courtney Keight and Rownita Marston into the sin trap and Exeter prop Laura Delgado with a red card marked head-to-head clash with Bristol’s Grace Crompton – all in the last 14 minutes and all with both teams already in the bottom four.

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