#360Rugby: Abendanon & Saracens shine

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From Ian Madigan's excellence to Nick Abendanon's influence, we take a look at five things we learned from the weekend's European rugby action.

The European Champions Cup quarter-finals, by and large, went with the form book, although there were a fair few thrills and spills along the way. Here are five things we learned from an enthralling weekend of European rugby…

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1. Forgotten man Abendanon gives Clermont bite

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but given what occurred at the Stade Marcel-Michelin it seems ridiculous that Northampton went into their contest with Clermont believing they could win.

Saints have streaked clear at the top of the Premiership, while their hosts had been stripped of international half-backs Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra.

But as Clermont powered into a 27-0 half-time lead it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be their day. Perhaps last week’s walloping of 14-man Wasps had not been the perfect warm-up after all.

The hosts were undone spectacularly by Saracens at the semi-final stage last season and played with the vim of a team that wants to put that right this year.

Nick Abendanon of Clermont Auvergne dives to score a try against Northampton.

Fly-half Brock James, in for the injured Lopez, was clearly in the mood to prove he could still conduct play on this stage, and was imperious kicking 17 points.

But it was another forgotten man (internationally at least) that stole the show. Nick Abendanon has played just twice for England, both caps coming in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, but still only 28 he has shown in Europe this season that he could yet have an international future.

On Saturday the South Africa-born full-back made a mammoth 145 metres in scoring once and setting up a further two tries, with his run away score in the second half highlighting the gulf in class between the two sides.

After the game, Abendanon described an England recall as a “dream”. Having narrowly missed out on two World Cup squads in the past, could it be third time lucky in 2015?

2. Saracens still the English side best equipped to do well in Europe

On a weekend in which sides from England were found wanting, Saracens proved they remain the Premiership’s safest bet on the continent.

Despite making up half of the teams left in the competition, it was always going be tough for English sides to progress simply because all four were playing away from home.

However, that does not account for what happened, with Bath, Northampton and to a lesser extent Wasps all playing with a naivety that gets you nowhere when faced with the best in Europe.

Flying in the face of this were Saracens, a team who have almost been forgotten about domestically as Northampton, Bath, Exeter et al have stolen the headlines.

Key man: Alex Goode (L) and Marcelo Bosch (R).

Yet Mark McCall’s side remain one of the smartest in Europe – currently second in the Premiership after all – and displayed as much in Paris on Sunday to clinch a dramatic win.

This was not the kind of all-action performance that saw them past Harlequins at Wembley last weekend, instead it was sensible as Sarries played in the right areas and refused to cave in even when Racing Metro got their power game going.

The way the side coped with Jim Hamilton’s yellow card was admirable, while Alex Goode and Marcelo Bosch both showed great composure once Charlie Hodgson had ceded kicking duties.

In short, unlike Saints, Bath or Wasps, Saracens know what is needed to win games at this stage of the competition. Now for a re-match with Clermont, although they are sure to have it tougher in Saint-Etienne than they did at Twickenham 12 months ago.

3. Wasps are definitely a team moving in the right direction

It is an often trotted out phrase in professional sports that a team will learn more in defeat than they will when winning. And while no-one connected to Wasps will have woken up on Monday morning feeling ecstatic, there is a lot of evidence to suggest Dai Young’s men are building something that could turn out to be quite special.

Wasps were the best team in the second half in Toulon, and had they not allowed their hosts to build such a commanding lead may well have caused a huge upset.

Regardless of the result that is quite some feat for a club whose very existence was in doubt prior to their controversial move to Coventry.

However, since relocating their playing operation to the midlands something remarkable has begun to happen. Without wanting to resort to a woeful pun, the club have created a buzz in their new home and have been able to turn that momentum into results.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest Dai Young’s men are building something that could turn out to be quite special.

Moreover, Young has been able to introduce a couple academy players, giving Elliot Daly a more prominent role and handing Alex Lozowski a start in France ahead of Andy Goode.

The experience the young fly-half gained in Toulon could prove telling as Young attempts to build a squad that can challenge consistently at home and in Europe.

Of course, no-one wants to lose and the journey home would not have been a happy one, but the signs are that this season’s trip to the quarters will not be a rarity.

4. Discipline wins knockout games, not tries

There could and probably should be two Premiership sides left in the Champions Cup, but while Bath and fly-half George Ford provided the spark at the Aviva Stadium, it was Leinster who were left celebrating at the end.

Ford’s try in Dublin was majestic, and he did brilliantly to set up captain Stuart Hooper too, but his side’s first-half ill discipline – allied with Jerome Garces’ controversial late call – meant they were unable to get the game over the line.

In terms of attacking stats, Bath dominated their hosts – they gained more metres, beat more defenders, created more clean breaks and offloaded over three times as much.

However, Leinster had the edge at the set piece and crucially in discipline. Bath conceded more turnovers and penalties and it was the shots at goal afforded to Ian Madigan in the first half that proved pivotal.

Madigan may wobble under pressure but he is the tournament’s top scorer this season and was allowed to find his kicking groove by some pretty amenable visitors.

The 15-5 half-time deficit proved to be a mountain Bath could not climb, especially as Leinster refused to give away penalties inside Ford’s range.

It was the England No10 that lit up the Aviva, but his side will have to learn to be more streetwise if they are to go further next season.

5. Governing bodies need to get tough at the right time

Coming so soon after Nathan Hughes was banned for three weeks for an accident, it was disappointing to see James Horwill get off a lot more lightly for deliberately trying to injure an opponent.

Of course it is difficult to compare a punishment dished out by the RFU with the one-week ban given to Harlequins-bound Horwill by SANZAR, but globally the sport needs to get tough on the right crimes.

Rebels prop Paul Alo-Emile is lucky that Horwill’s punch did not connect with him cleanly, instead grazing his own player, but that should not make it any less of a crime.

The former Wallabies captain steamed into the ruck with clear intent to harm his opponent. It was disappointing therefore to hear the commentary team initially attempt to downplay the incident as just one of those things that happens on a rugby field.

The game needs to get away from this attitude as had Horwill connected with Alo-Emile’s head as he intended then the front-rower could have ended up with a serious concussion.

That issue is rightly high on the agenda at the moment, but if World Rugby want to get serious about tackling the problem then they must ensure governing bodies get tough on these incidents.

Otherwise what message does it send out?

Bonus Point

Saracens victory over Racing Metro in Paris was built on determination as much as anything else, displayed here by Marcelo Bosch’s brilliant try-saving tackle on Argentina team-mate Juan Imhoff.

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‘Underdogs’ Wasps out to create new era in European Challenge Cup against Toulon

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Fighting spirit: Wasps captain James Haskell (c) is not scared of Toulon.

Wasps have been challenged to launch a new dynasty of European success when they face Toulon in their Champions Cup quarter-final today.

– Bath hold heads high despite Challenge Cup defeat to Leinster
– Clermont masterclass shatters Northampton’s Challenge Cup dreams
– #360view: Wasps may deliver a sting in the tail in quarter-finals

Mission impossible confronts the Premiership underdogs on the Cote d’Azur where the star-studded champions are plotting their route to an unprecedented third successive title.

Losing wings Christian Wade and Sailosi Tagicakibau to hamstring injuries and powerful number eight Nathan Hughes to suspension has only heightened the sense that Wasps’ return to the knockout stages will end in France.

But director of rugby Dai Young insists they are capable of stunning Toulon, evoking the club’s European glory days of last decade while declaring it is time for the new generation to leave their calling card on the continent.

“We’re very proud and respectful for the club’s history and tradition, but we have a determined group now who want to start making their own mark,” Young said.

“We want people to be talking about this Wasps team rather than referring back to the other guys all the time. No one expected us to get out of the group, so in a lot of people’s eyes this is a shot to nothing.”

Captain James Haskell, who returns to the back row after being rested against Northampton last weekend, insists Wasps are in familiar territory.

He said: “We are underdogs against Toulon because of their pedigree, but I firmly believe we have the ability to get a result down there.”

Today’s second quarter-final sees last season’s runners-up Saracens visit Racing Metro with scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth leading the team in the injury enforced absence of lock Alistair Hargreaves, partnering Charlie Hodgson at half-back.

Saracens are unbeaten in their last five matches and have only lost one game in their last nine. Their French opponents were the only unbeaten club in the pool stages, coming out of their group with Northampton Saints, the Ospreys and Benetton Treviso with 24 points thanks to five wins and just one draw.

“We are in very good spirits,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall. “We have watched Racing a lot over the last week, especially their win at Franklin’s Gardens, and they were very good that day.”

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Bath hold heads high despite European Challenge Cup defeat to Leinster

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Defeated: Bath's players were left dejected by loss to Leinster.

Bath boss Mike Ford insisted he did not want “a sympathy vote” for his team after their European Champions Cup campaign ended with a tense quarter-final exit against Leinster in Dublin yesterday.

– Clermont masterclass shatters Northampton’s Challenge Cup dreams
– #360view: Wasps may deliver a sting in the tail in quarter-finals
– #Quiz360: WIN a group paintball session at Zayed Sports City

Centre Ian Madigan booted Bath out of Europe as his six successful penalties condemned them to an 18-15 defeat, although the visitors claimed touchdowns by England fly-half George Ford and captain Stuart Hooper.

George Ford, back at the Aviva Stadium just five weeks after being part of an England team beaten during Ireland’s march to the Six Nations title, scored a brilliant solo try and also made a break that ended with Hooper breaching Leinster’s defence, while he kicked a conversion and late penalty as Bath pressed.

But Bath ultimately gave Madigan too many chances to punish them and he delivered a 100 per cent success-rate to book Leinster a semi-final appointment with either Toulon or Wasps, who meet on the Mediterranean coast today.

“Make no mistake, we don’t want any sympathy vote here. We should have won that game today,” head coach Mike Ford said. “There is a lot of disappointment. The first-half performance, especially, we are a lot better than that.

“We made quite a few line-breaks, but there is more than one way to win a game. It is not just about scoring tries. They kicked their penalties and fair play to them. That last 10-15 minutes, I was convinced we were going to win the game, but it’s small margins.” 

George Ford reflected the sense of disappointment permeating Bath’s camp after they failed to secure a first top-flight European semi-final appearance since 2006.

“Irish teams are very good at squeezing teams and milking penalties and building a score that way,” he said. “We should have handled that better than we did.

“We wanted to play with a good tempo so we could make linebreaks and be a threat in attack. Ultimately, we need to start getting better at taking these chances.”

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