It may not have quite hit the heights of the quarter-final weekend, but there was still plenty to applaud as Clermont and Toulon secured an all-French European Champions Cup final at Twickenham next month. This is what we learned from a pulsating couple of days.
Leigh Halfpenny finding Jonny Wilkinson’s a snug fit in Toulon
During a visit to Dubai last year, Leigh Halfpenny described his impending move to Toulon and particularly the chance that would give him to work with his childhood hero, Jonny Wilkinson, as “surreal”.
Just over 12 months later, and the partnership between the Wales full-back and his kicking coach appears to be bearing fruit.
Halfpenny was instrumental in Toulon’s march to the European Champions Cup final, kicking 20 of his side’s 25 points, including a nerve-shredding penalty in extra-time that nudged his side in front while they were a man light.
Indeed, the biggest cheer of the afternoon in Marseille seemed to be reserved not for Bryan Habana’s try but confirmation over the PA system that the Welshman was man of the match.
“I just try to do the best I can,” a typically modest Halfpenny said afterwards, before hailing Wilkinson and his Wales mentor Neil Jenkins as “the best (kicking) coaches in the world”.
Halfpenny has not had it all his own way during his first season in the south of France, but the signs are that he is beginning to settle.
His performance on Sunday was about more than just his place kicking, however, that ultimately is what Toulon paid the big money for. It is pleasing therefore to see the affable Welshman justifying his price tag.
Leinster fall short despite raising themselves once more
In truth Leinster had limped into their semi-final clash with Toulon, and few gave them much hope of reaching next month’s final at Twickenham.
However, you can never write off the Irish province in European competition and the team that has historically reserved their best for the continent did so again in Marseille.
It was by no means a classic match with the conditions helping to ensure that any excitement was largely reserved for extra-time.
That said, Leinster played with a level of passion and commitment that had been missing from their quarter-final win over Bath. Led by strong performances from the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Devon Toner and Sean O’Brien, Matt O’Connor’s side kept themselves in the game right up until the final whistle.
Ultimately, it was Habana’s interception try that settled the match, and Ian Madigan will have nightmares about the miss-pass he threw for months to come. That moment should not be allowed to cloud the contribution of the Ireland international, though.
It should not be forgotten that it was a fine kicking display from Madigan that had given Leinster a half-time and ensured the game required an additional period.
It was Leinster’s inability to apply sufficient pressure once they had an extra man, not Madigan’s errant pass, that proved pivotal.
— Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 19, 2015
Mark McCall deserves more credit than he gets
Rugby union is not necessarily a sport that lionises its coaches in the same way that others do. Players have a lot more say when things aren’t going well on the pitch, than in say football, while directors of rugby prefer to watch games from high in the stands rather than on the touchline.
But while they may seem a little more distant, they play as integral a role in their team’s fortunes and the best are of course acknowledged accordingly.
It’s therefore surely time to recognise the achievements of Saracens DoR Mark McCall. His side were unlucky not to book their place in the Champions Cup final, as individual errors cost them against Clermont on Saturday.
But they remain the one Premiership club who play with the nous and tactical awareness to mix it with the best clubs on the continent.
Of course, Saracens have investigated heavily on recruitment in the last few seasons, making his comments on the spending power of other clubs after the game seem more than a tad hypocritical.
However, McCall has also put a lot of faith in youngsters, five of his pack against Clermont were either 25 or younger with the likes of George Kruis and Maro Itoje playing themselves into international contention.
European elimination was obviously a blow but a season that has already seen Saracens lift the LV= Cup could yet end with them crowned Premiership champions too.
There aren’t too many people at the club more integral to that success than McCall.
Mark McCall gracious in defeat with @bbc5live, points out five of forward pack English and under age of 24. Itoje? “Incredible.”
— Christopher Jones (@chjones9) April 18, 2015
French fans should reconsider booing kickers
Rugby fans in France were rightly basking in the reflective glory of a second all-French Champions Cup final in three seasons this weekend.
Question marks remain about the impact on the big spending of Clermont, Toulon and their Top 14 rivals is having on the French national team. But it cannot be denied that it is producing some powerful, and successful, teams.
Moreover, it is a model that seems to have found favour with the fans as full stadiums in both Marseille and Saint-Etienne highlighted.
However, while it is encouraging to see healthy crowds watching club rugby, it was disappointing to hear the volley of boos that opposition kickers.
It is not only a case of poor sportsmanship, either, as there was evidence in Marseille on Sunday that the cacophony of noise actually helped rather than hindered Leinster’s Ian Madigan.
There can be few more eery sights or sounds than a full stadium that suddenly goes deathly quiet. Traditionally it is seen as a mark of respect, but in certain situations it can actually increase the pressure of the kicker as it forces them to think about what they are about to do – allowing nerves to creep in.
On Sunday, Madigan – a player who is no stranger to a case of the yips – was able to lose himself in the boos, and produced a near-perfect kicking display.
Whether it is out of respect for the kicker, or merely a bit of reverse gamesmanship, it should be time for French fans to have a rethink.
There are some wonderful, wonderful things about French rugby – booing the kicker isn’t one of them. No idea why they think it is ok?
— Paul Morgan (@PaulMorganrugby) April 19, 2015
Gloucester’s hopes of finding a buyer have increased
Prior to Gloucester’s European Challenge Cup semi-final with Exeter, the club’s season appeared to be listing badly.
One of only four Premiership clubs to run at a profit, massive investment last summer had not transferred into result with the Cherry and Whites staring at a second successive ninth-placed finish.
All of which had seen the club put up for sale with a £25 million (Dh137m) price tag.
— Emma Thurston (@EmmaThurston23) April 19, 2015
However, the club’s owners might want to re-evaluate that figure after beating the Chiefs to keep their hopes of both silverware, and playing in the Champions Cup next season, alive.
Winning the Challenge Cup will see them playing in Europe’s elite competition next term, making the club a much more attractive option to investors.
Securing a first trophy in four years could also kick-start the fortunes of the Premiership’s second-best supported club.
As they showed on Saturday, Gloucester certainly possess the quality to be challenging with a back division including the likes of Jonny May, Greig Laidlaw, Billy Twelvetrees and James Hook.
There problem recently has been finding the consistency to propel them towards silverware. Clubs in the past have used the Challenge Cup as a springboard for further success, both Gloucester and Edinburgh will be looking to do the same, starting at the Stoop next month.
Always felt Gloucester on their day are as good a team as any in English rugby. They proved that again last night v http://t.co/JlaTrVjruz
— Ian Stafford (@IanStaffs) April 19, 2015
Bristol ensured they finished the Championship season with an unbeaten home record thanks to a 40-29 win over Jersey on Friday. The game featured 20 points from the boot of Gavin Henson, but check out the run from his countryman, Matthew Morgan, to set up the first try (around 55 seconds in).
Gloucester beat English rivals Exeter Chiefs 30-19 at Kingsholm on Saturday (18th April) to reach the final of the European Rugby Challenge Cup.
Clermont Auvergne beat Saracens 13-9 in the European Rugby Champions Cup on Saturday (18th April) to reach the final of European rugby union's premier club competition for a second time in three years.