As the season reaches its climax in Europe, Stuart Barnes looks at who will be the winners of 2010.
Last Updated: 17/05/10 2:10pm
The story of the weekend has to be Saracens but before addressing them a word for Leicester. The Tigers are the victim of their own success. England's best run club is taken for granted because of the sheer consistency of their achievements. Saracens in the final - that is a whopping big deal but Leicester, so what?
By beating Bath black and blue at the line out and overwhelming them after a problematic twenty minutes at the scrum the current champions set themselves up for a crack at their seventh Premiership title. That is an astonishing effort whatever the resources. May 29th represents their sixth straight final and Sunday was their ninth consecutive semi final victory in all competitions.
It might not have been pretty but Leicester ruthlessly achieved their goals and shut the brimming Bath attacking game out. There may only have been nine points between the sides but from the first minute of the second half onwards there was only one winner as Leicester ground Bath into submission.
The quality of their set piece - at its best - is another level to any other set piece in the country. That combined with their experience of the big game makes them the logical and strong favourites for the final. But there is nothing preordained about this final just as there is little logical about the Saracens season.
Bar Brendan Venter few conceived they would rattle up such a relentless sequence of wins at the start of the campaign. Few thought they would bounce back when the losses came and even fewer envisaged the nature of the transition that has seen them surge to Twickenham on a tide of top rate tries.
To inflict the Saints second home defeat of the season (they, of course, being the only team to have won at the Gardens through the regular 22 match league) they maintained their recent strike rate of three tries a game. Two absolute gems and the most significant of them all - Schalk Brits's catch and drive line out try.
That was the winner and the one that suggested that nobody will intimidate them. The Saints looked like winning the match after their pack had splintered Saracens in like manner with Brian Mujati driving them over. The mark of the best teams is a capacity to not only strike back but to do it to maximum psychological effect by undermining the opposition's perceived strength. To rumble through the Saints pack was that psychological move. It still needed a wide conversion but Glen Jackson was waiting for the moment.
Jackson and Neil de Kock eclipsed the Northampton half backs who failed to handle the pressure. The inability to even attempt a drop goal in the final play of the game summed up the naive nature of a talented team who couldn't handle the pressure. The signs were there for all to see in Limerick; Sunday was proof that this remains a team with plenty to improve upon before it is ready for the big time.
The fact that Shane Geraghty, for whatever reason, never looked like repeating his magical fly half performance that dismantled Munster in the early rounds of the Heineken Cup summed up the difference between a team good enough to be very good on a regular basis and good enough to beat the best when it most mattered. Having achieved a home semi final and losing after being well beaten in the Heineken Cup quarter final, Northampton has to see the season as a failure. That is how Leicester would adjudge it and if they want to emulate the Tigers nothing but a brutal look in the mirror will suffice.
Saracens will surely see defeat as failure. They play as if the concept is out of the question. Self belief is huge and having beaten the Tigers at Leicester fear will not overwhelm them at Twickenham. It promises to be quite a final.
Nothing but success will do
One side with the fear of failure hanging over their head is Toulouse. Guy Noves rested around a third of their best fifteen for the French semi final with Perpignan. The calculated gamble failed and defeat will leave against Biarritz would leave them bereft. They have to be favourites but Biarritz beat them 26-10 earlier this year and will trust their defence and the brain and boot of Dimitri Yachvili to steer them to a first title.
Elsewhere in France Clermont Auvergne edged into their eleventh final; it is played ten lost ten to date. I assume Brock James will not be asked to take the pressure kicks. Their victims were Toulon who - unlike Toulouse rested nobody ahead of Sunday's Amlin final in Marseilles against Cardiff.
Europe is Toulouse's priority the French championship was Toulon's. Saturday's exertions and disappointment plays into the hands of the Cardiff Blues. No Welsh side has won a European competition but even with a hostile crowd against them, I reckon the Blues have a great chance. It would be wonderful to see a performer like Martyn Williams grasp something tangible with his club.Having for once successfully negotiated my way through the minefields of predictions with French and English semis I predict Toulouse and the Blues to prevail this coming weekend. That probably means you should put the money down on a Biarritz/Toulon double. Whichever way it goes it should be thrilling. Let us hope the quality matches the likely drama.
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Keep it in the family
Hi Stuart, Do you think that the reason the England management team went to Leicester rather than Northampton for any particular reason? Do you not think that their resources would have been better used had they split and half gone to see the other semi? Now why do you think they all turned up at Welford Road? A warmer welcome from the Leicester Brotherhood?
STUART REPLIES: Andrew, Cynicism doesn't suit you Andrew. We'll have less of this Leicester brotherhood. I am prepared to criticise this management for a lot but the Leicester bias flak that flies around doesn't stick with me. It may that be that subconsciously there is too much of a Tiger thought process at work but the front part of the brain is trying to pick the best team for England, regardless from where. Maybe their failure to find the answer to that selection problem has them so worried about spectator abuse they have decided to travel mob handed...I don't know. I think that the management should have split resources but the reason for not doing so is NOT due to simple Tiger favouritism. Although the subconscious is a worry, I'll give you that.
Punishment fits the crime?
Hi Stuart, Do you think the punishment for the Opsreys was fair? Should their point's deduction not have happened this year rather than being taken over for next season?
Mel Chrissos, Cardiff
STUART REPLIES: Mel, I think the Ospreys were a little fortunate re. their European mistake and I think they make a few too many mistakes for their own good off the field. I am enjoying plenty of their rugby on the field. Fair or not, I am not really sure. It's not much of an answer but I can't work out when the punishment should take affect...sorry for being a little cloudy on this one but I'd need a while to ponder it and with Monday being my day off I'm not going to spend all morning pondering...
Raw deal for Saull's
Question for you Stuart...it's a pretty good looking 44 man squad (44 is too many players though) but I'd like your opinion on the absence of Andy Saull. What point is there in blooding a 30yr old South African openside (admittedly Fourie has had a tremendous season) in Australia when we have a young, talented English openside languishing with the Saxons. Saull will be sitting on the bench because Tom Rees will be captain of the Saxons and therefore play the majority of the games. Openside is a young man's position...Richie McCaw is 29 but been playing for NZ since he was 22. Australia ditched the still-fantastic George Smith who is also 29 to replace him with the hugely talented 22yr old David Pocock. How old is Andy Saull? Oh wait he's 22 this year...I can see a theme here! Surely it would be much better for Saull's and England's development to expose him to the full test squad and see what he is made of?
STUART REPLIES: Ali, Like too many of the England selections the choice of Fourie over Saull seems to lack any clearly defined logic. It is this muddy thinking that is causing so many problems for a management that needs much more opaque thought processes. It still seems all too fumbling don't you think?
Stuart, what are your views on the Bulls resting 13 of their players for their last Super 14 game? I know they had already topped the table but I can understand how some other teams hoping to get in would have liked them to pick their strongest team available. Do you think it had anything to do with the Stormers being A South African side aiming for their own play-off spot?
STUART REPLIES: Malcolm, It has everything to do with the Bulls giving themselves the best chance to win the competition. It's their decision whether to rest players or not. If other sides feel any pique I suggest they beat the Bulls earlier in the season to prevent them having this opportunity for the rest. The Bulls have earned the right to play the Under 14s as far as I am concerned.