Ahead of two mouth-watering Anglo-French European cup finals, Sport360’s rugby experts look at the players to watch and who will likely come out on top.
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EPCR FINAL WILL BE A SPECTACLE OF POWER, NOT BEAUTY
On 14th May Saracens will meet Racing in the European Champions Cup final and no one can argue with the fact that these two teams have been the best by some distance.
It is no coincidence therefore that both teams employ a similar brand of rugby, where aesthetically pleasing backs moves take a backseat to power and organised defence.
That is not to say it will not be an enthralling, encapsulating arm wrestle of a match with plenty of firepower to keep the crowd at Lyon satisfied. It is still a European final between the capital cities of old foes England and France, after all.
If the prospect of Dan Carter playing against Owen Farrell (if the latter comes out the right side of the citing commissioner), Joe Rokocoko taking on Chris Ashton and Chris Masoe doing battle with Billy Vunipola at the base of the scrum doesn’t excite a rugby fan, then nothing ever will.
The Londoners have now contested four semi-finals in four years and it will be their second final, meaning they have more experience and the favourites tag going into the game.
CHALLENGE CUP A BATTLE OF CONTRASTING STYLES
If there is a similarity of styles between in the main competition, the Challenge Cup match up between Montpellier and Harlequins is chalk and cheese.
The influence of Montpellier’s formidable band of Springboks is evident in their style of play. Harlequins can expect a tight and brutal contest around the ruck as well as an aerial examination of their back three.
Mike Brown was proud of the Club's performance after yesterday's semi-final Challenge Cup win over Grenoble pic.twitter.com/gL5pSHvSzd— Harlequins (@QuinsRugbyUnion) April 23, 2016
Conor O’Shea’s men will play with the same attacking flair and instinctive, offloading game that saw them thrash Grenoble so convincingly in the semi-finals.
Welsh battering ram Jamie Roberts will look to put his team on the front foot, creating space for the likes of Mike Brown and Marland Yarde to create havoc in the outside channels.
The rugby purists will hope that the Londoner’s endevours with ball in hand will be rewarded with a fourth Challenge Cup title, but with Montpellier’s superior power it is difficult to see anything other than a win for the French side.
SUNWOLVES FINALLY HAVE SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT
It may have been against an out-of-sorts Jaguares side, but the Sunwolves’ first win in Super Rugby was the toast of Tokyo last weekend.
Following a 92-17 humiliation at the claws of the Cheethas last week, the critics were circling the Japanese Super Rugby debutants like, er, wolves.
However Mark Hammett’s men dusted themselves down and are now off the bottom of the table following a hard-fought 36-28 victory.
Samoan fly-half Tusi Pisi was a just recipient of his Man of the Match award, orchestrating his midfielders into space with ease, and contributing 18-points with the boot.
Delays in finalising a playing squad (and coach) have meant a tough start to life in Super Rugby for the Sunwolves but the team and its passionate fans will hope to build some momentum heading into the end of season run in.
PERELINI RAISING UAE RUGBY EXPECTATIONS AHEAD OF UZBEKISTAN SERIES
Former dual code Samoa international Apollo Perelini is putting UAE rugby through a grueling six-week training regime in a bid to improve standards ahead of the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) series.
The 46-year-old has been focusing on skill levels in his initial sessions and is adamant all players need to be on par with one another.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a front rower, second rower, a winger or fly-half, you all have the same responsibility. You all want to have the same skill level across the park,” said Perelini.
“My philosophy is when you’re on the field, you’re all rugby players. Irrespective of where you play you all have to have the same skill-sets. I want them to be a ball player, I want my forwards to be just as skillful as any back.”
Perelini’s UAE will warm up for ARC Division II games against Singapore, Guam and Uzbekistan in May with a friendly against a UAE Premiership Barbarians team, coached by Dubai Exiles’ Jacques Benade.
HURRICANE LOOKING TO LAUNCH INTERNATIONAL CAREER WITH UAE
It might be the time of year when sport in the UAE starts to die down, but Daniel Perry insists there will be no let up from the national rugby next month’s Asia Rugby Championship (ARC) Division II campaign.
The Dubai Hurricanes captain arrived in the UAE from Morecambe in May 2012 and just missed out on UAE selection for their trip to Malaysia 12 months ago. There, the UAE narrowly missed out on promotion back to Asia Rugby’s second tier.
Having now passed his UAE three-year residency rule, Perry is determined to make the squad, especially after a disappointing club season with Canes.
This year coach Perelini has been putting around 35 players through their paces at The Sevens and Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence and will cull the group to a 25-man touring squad in the coming days.
If Saracens were in any doubt as to the size of the task ahead of them in the EPCR final, they need not look any further than the impact of Racing number eight Chris Masoe. Against Leicester, the former All Black was in full beast mode. Just ask Graham Kitchener or Freddie Burns.
Victory kept Premiership leaders Saracens on course for a domestic and European double.
The London club will now play the winners of Sunday’s second semi-final between Leicester and Paris-based Racing 92 in the May 14 European final in Lyon.
Saracens dominated up front but could not shake Wasps off as they unusually squandered chances.
But Itoje told Sky Sports: “The resilience in the team and the quality of the person in the team helps us control games and come through difficult points in the match.”
Saracens, losing European finalists in 2014 and yet to win the continental title, led 8-7 at half-time after a charge-down try by Michael Rhodes and a penalty by Owen Farrell helped them recover after it took Wasps just 73 seconds to open the scoring through Dan Robson’s converted try.
Two more penalties by England goal-kicker Farrell and one from Gopperth followed.
Farrell kicked another penalty before a Saracens penalty try late on took them into a 24-10 lead.
There was still time for Wasps replacement Ashley Johnson to score a converted try but Saracens saw out the game.
The two sides had met twice in the Premiership this season, with Saracens winning 26-16 in December and Wasps enjoying a 64-23 rout in February — when several of Saracens’ England grand slam-winning stars were on Six Nations duty against Italy.
Wasps, the last English side to be crowned champions of Europe in 2007, lived up to their reputation for exciting rugby by catching Saracens cold with a scintillating try just over a minute into the match.
Gopperth and veteran Australia flanker George Smith worked a switch move that released express wing Christian Wade, who scored six tries in a Premiership match against Worcester last weekend.
Wade collected the ball on the halfway line and beat two men before his inside pass found scrum-half Robson, who in turn side-stepped his marker and went over.
Kiwi fly-half Gopperth, whose conversion with the last kick of the game sealed a dramatic quarter-final win over Exeter, added the extras and Wasps led 7-0.
Farrell then surprisingly pulled a 30-metre penalty wide of the posts.
Saracens, however were gaining ground through their forwards and their pressure was eventually rewarded when flanker Rhodes charged down Gopperth’s clearance kick for a 28th-minute try.
Farrell missed the conversion from out on the right and Wasps still led 7-5.
But a Wasps ruck offence on the stroke of half-time saw Farrell succeed with an easy penalty that gave Sarries an 8-7 lead at the break.
And when Smith infringed at a ruck early in the second period, Farrell punished Wasps with a successful penalty from just inside the half-way line.
Minutes later Farrell landed near 50-metre penalty and Saracens were 14-7 in front.
Saracens though were down to 14 men when Farrell was shown a yellow card in the 51st minute for a head-high tackle on Robson that eventually saw the Wasps No 9 taken off the field on a stretcher.
Gopperth kicked the resulting penalty and Saracens’ lead had been cut to 14-10.
Haskell was involved in some shuddering collisions with England team-mates Billy Vunipola and Itoje up front.
Farrell, head bandaged after his clash with Robson, then missed a long-range penalty immediately upon his return from the sin-bin.
But he made no mistake from in front of the posts with 12 minutes left when Wasps replacement Simon McIntyre was sin-binned for kicking Itoje in the face.
Saracens, starving Wasps of possession, extended their with a 73rd-minute penalty try awarded after Wasps collapsed a maul that started from outside the 22.
Johnson then pounced after a good break by Elliot Daly but it was all too late for Wasps.
The domestic rugby landscape in the UAE looks more competitive than ever following Dubai Exiles’ return to prominence in 2015-16.
Under the leadership of new director of rugby Jacques Benade, the region’s oldest club will celebrate half a century as UAE Premiership and West Asia Championship (WAC) champions.
That is something that would not have looked likely as the season drew to a close 12 months ago.
Exiles finished fifth in last season’s UAE Premiership, which meant they failed to qualify for the coveted Gulf Top Six, left alone instead to languish in the second-tier Gulf Conference.
Although they won that competition, making it back-to-back victories, it was a sign of how far they’d fallen.
Their descent was halted with Benade’s arrival although their journey back to the top has been rather rapid.
They played out a season-long duel with Abu Dhabi Harlequins for silverware this season, which was fascinating from start to finish.
The 22-18 win for Quins at Zayed Sports City in October was the game of the season, although there were many other encounters that pushed it close.
However, for sheer drama, it could not be beaten. And, while much better was predicted following Benade’s arrival from Ireland and a clutch of new faces, that game signified the moment that they were to be taken seriously.
Although the overriding feeling following pushing Exiles so close will be disappointment for Quins, it’s been an impressive first season in charge for Mike McFarlane.
He is a fierce competitor and will not be content with claiming the Gulf Men’s League title at December’s Dubai Sevens.
They were only halted from making a clean sweep of domestic trophies by Exiles, which should ensure for an even fiercer feud in 2016-17.
Dubai Exiles RFC. West Asia Champions and UAE Premiership Champions. Job done in great style & with good blokes... pic.twitter.com/rKSeyD6VQb— Mike Wolff (@mikewolff1967) 8 April 2016
The final act of 2014-15 saw Abu Dhabi Saracens crowned champions of west Asia.
They had to play second fiddle to the Quins and Exiles rivalry this season but, again, with a new coaching team at the helm, Stephen Hamilton and Craig Nutt can be hugely satisfied with a campaign in which the club stood on its own for the first time since its 2011 inception.
A few more bodies and a bit more pace, combined with a season under of management under the duo’s belts, will do wonders for the men from Al Ghazal.
Looking back on the season will not provide largely happy memories for Jebel Ali Dragons, Dubai Hurricanes or Al Ain Amblers, but there is much for all three to look forward to.
And that's it. The title and double secured. Exiles romp home. What a superb season in their 50th year— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) 8 April 2016
Back-to-back treble-winning seasons for the men from Jebel Ali in 2012-13 and 2013-14 seem a long way away following two campaigns of struggle, but Dragons will be buoyed by former New Zealand and England dual code international Henry Paul’s arrival in July.
That will surely ruffle a few feathers and see Dragons propelled back towards the elite.
Reaching the semi-finals at the Dubai Sevens promised to reignite their season, but Dragons eventually fell to disappointing fifth and seventh-placed finishes in the UAE Premiership and WAC respectively.
Dubai Hurricanes’ malaise continued.
Whereas James Ham’s side often showed they can live with the biggest sides in the Gulf, pushing Doha and Quins close in the WAC, they rather ambled through another season, finishing fourth in the Premiership and fifth in the WAC with a combined record of seven wins in 18 games.
They will be hoping for a shot in the arm in time for next season.
Speaking of Amblers and 2015-16 provided the men from the Garden City with a rude awakening.
They won 15 games as they claimed last season’s UAE Conference and steamrollered into the Premiership – this season they won just once in 18 Premiership and WAC games.
Andrew Rouvi will be boosted by his side’s performance in 2016. They claimed a solitary win against Muscat in the WAC and played some thrilling attacking rugby, scoring four tries in six of their eight WAC matches. They will be hopeful of better things to come next season.
Overall, the Premiership proved its continuing strength this season, which will be evidenced when UAE rugby performance manager Apollo Perelini picks his 25-man Test squad for upcoming Asia Rugby Championship games in Uzbekistan next month being made up entirely of Premiership players.