Marcus Smith, Harlequins.

Champion’s Cup’s aggregate format made for great rugby

THE IRC’S LIAM BOTHAM COLUMN
Every Friday

After our chat with Nigel Owens last week (an article picked up by a few international rugby websites), I was fascinated to see how right Nigel was in his assessment of the increasing influence of TMO’s on rugby fields.

I know that TMO’s are playing a big role, we all do – hence my question to him last week. But I made a point of watching several games last weekend, focusing on the decisions that go to the TMO, and the cards handed out. I suggest you do that too.

There were matches in which referees constantly called on the TMO for help in their decision-making, like Nigel said, and they were stop-start contests. In a few others, the referees tried to make their own calls but still consulted too often, and there were only one or two referees that got through a whole match with a minimum of TMO fuss, though those matches were mostly incident free.

It will be interesting to see if rugby’s authorities will be addressing this issue. Do they see it as a problem at all? One has to wonder sometimes if the game’s big wigs watch the same matches that we do.

Thanks again to Mr Owens for his time. He addressed some vital and glaringly obvious issues that seem to be ignored or overlooked by those who make the decisions. Changes will have to made to certain rules, sooner rather than later. What will it take for this to happen?

***

A few weeks ago we voiced our support for the European Champions Cup’s new aggregate rules for the interesting new dimension it would bring to the matches in the last 16 Pool stage of the Tournament.

From our 4 April column: “An aggregate score format is being used, which makes this exciting as tactics, careful player selection and risk come into play. Will teams decide to employ flair and open running rugby in Leg 1, so they can sit back more conservatively in Leg 2, or vice versa depending on rivals?”

And so, we saw what was predicted – different sets of tactics used by the respective teams, a fresh psychological aspect coming into play and some unexpected results following the application of the aggregate. I thoroughly enjoyed the see-sawing it delievered, and I’d stick with my support for this format. We need to keep rugby exciting with innovations in order to keep the game alive and well.

To my surprise Harlequins senior coach Tabai Matson voiced his disagreement with the two-leg Champions Cup format after his side got knocked out by Montpellier in the Round of 16. Harlequins almost staged a historical comeback but lost 60-59 on aggregate to their French counterparts with only a missed Marcus Smith missed conversion separating the sides.

Matson said how “gutting” it was to lose by one point over 160 minutes. He feels it is not fair on teams that performed well in the group stage, given that Harlequins finished second in Pool B, while Montpellier finished seventh in Pool A.

“I think it’s pretty tough. On reflection, we finished second in our pool and they finished seventh in their pool and they basically get a free crack. I’m not sure in the final 16 if there was any advantage for us. Ultimately, we won five (pool) games and they won two. It does make the first part of pool play farcical if they get two cracks at it and you don’t really get an advantage from finishing top of the table.”

I can’t see why anyone should back Matson on those views. It was indeed his Harlequins outfit who came back strong and impressive after a slow start in last year’s Premiership to win the Tournament against expectations. They did it with consistency and improvement in the second half of the Premiership to overtake the long-time log leaders, Bristol and Exeter. In rugby, like anything else in life, persistence to the end is what counts. It’s never over till it’s over. If Marcus Smith landed that kick, Matson wouldn’t have said a word about the aggregate format.

In a similarly nail-biting Pool 16 match Ulster, who were victorious in the first leg against Toulouse and were leading the contest heading into the closing stages of the return fixture at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, were knocked out on aggregate.

Antoine Dupont’s converted try on 75 minutes saw Toulouse edge into a 50-49 lead over the two legs – an advantage they held to take Ulster out of the competition.

Ulster, however, took their defeat on the chin. “It is frustrating for us, we tried to concentrate on building pressure and not let them get those easy tries. But they managed to get a few of them,” said captain Iain Henderson. “When we look at the loss for us it is with incredible frustration, rather than previous years where we have looked at it and went ‘we were well-beaten out there’ or ‘they were able to run away with it’.

***

There are a few outstanding games in this weekend’s United Rugby Championship and the Premiership.

The South African teams, who found the European winters too tough and their pillows too hard, have given wings to Jake White’s prediction earlier this year that they’ll do so much better playing from their own homes, and sleeping in their own beds, close to their stadiums. Fair play to Jake. Most of the Saffa squads are in good form now so tomorrow’s clash between the Sharks and Leinster, the Irish giants, could be a thriller.

It’s significant because the Sharks need a win to get into the play-offs, and Leinster is a yardstick by which most will measure how North shapes against South at international level.

Back home, we have an Irish Derby between battle-scarred Ulster, on the back of three successive defeats (two desperately unlucky) and Munster, who decisively saw off Exeter in the Heineken European Cup last week and come into the game with their tails up.

Mike Lowry shifts from full-back to Ulster’s persistent problem-position at flyhalf as the club is reportedly standing by their refusal to look at Paddy Jackson as the obvious solution. The Times headlined this issue in January this year with, “Pretending that Paddy Jackson does not exist serves nobody” – long after he was acquitted on a criminal charge. I’m not saying more.

In the Premiership, we still have the bottle-neck in mid-table. With only three rounds left to clear the ‘neck’, we’re going to see some super rugby in Round 23 this weekend. There is only 6 points between 9th (Wasps) and 5th (Gloucester) – both of them and Northampton with games in hand over 4th-placed Exeter.

The Top 9 have plenty to play for, the others are out of it, though 10th-placed Bristol will want to restore some pride in their mediocre season with a good performance against Gloucester tonight.

The matches of the weekend in this Tournament are Leicester (1st) against Harlequins (3rd) and 2nd-placed Saracens against 4th-placed Exeter. Leicester is at the critical stage of every tournament where they need to consolidate and focus to keep their good lead; Harlequins are on the rebound following their Pool 16 Champions Cup loss last week. Exeter, similarly, will be out to get back on track after their Munster loss, and Saracens will put their consistency to the test to remain the team within some kind of reach of Leicester.

Saracens, in their 40-32 beating of Cardiff in a URC match last week, showed great resolve and I was discussing their win with some of my mates. It came down to a will to win, something which is a part of the Saracens fabric but has not taken hold in the Cardiff Squad yet. This continues to disappoint me, as a Blues supporter.

Until next week!

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