Heineken Cup 2014: Three talking points as Saracens reach final
Heineken Cup 2014: Three talking points as Saracens are 46-6 winners against Clermont Auvergne
Ash splashes into the record books
He may have been dropped by England for the Six Nations, but Saracens wing Chris Ashton has certainly stepped up in Europe this season and a recall for England’s summer tour of New Zealand is a must for Stuart Lancaster despite the performances of Jonny May and Jack Nowell in the Six Nations. A brace of tries in the semi-finals sets a new record for tries scored in the competition in a single season as Ashton ran in his 10th and 11th scores of the campaign and there could be more to come in the final next month at the Millennium Stadium against Munster or Toulon. The customary ‘Ash splash’ celebration may have been watered down for the showpiece at HQ, but the 27-year-old was again elusive from the right wing and England will need his pace, intuition and experience this summer. His record speaks for itself: 18 international tries in 37 appearances and 23 Heineken Cup tries in 33 appearances. England backs coach Andy Farrell will certainly have been impressed with Ashton’s ability to take his chances when they came to him and his attitude and commitment to defensive work late in the game with the game seemingly won.
Ultimate Burger monsters Michelin men
Shark by name, shark by nature. Jacques [not remotely French] Burger produced the performance of a lifetime against Clermont Auvergne. The Namibian flanker has long since been recognised as one of the toughest tacklers in world rugby, and he showcased his ferocity on the big stage with a bruising 27 hits in 70 minutes of rugby. That’s more than three times as many as Clermont prop Thomas Domingo and almost half the number made by the entire Clermont side. If there’s one thing everyone knows about Sarries, it’s that they defend as a pack and they’re pretty good at it. Schalk Brits weighed in with 19 tackles and Mako Vunipola 17 as the Premiership league leaders put in 193 tackles with a 91 per cent success rate. Should there really be much of a surprise? The Saracens defence was again superb and rightly gets lavished with praise as much as their attacking prowess in the form of Ashton, David Strettle, Alex Goode and Owen Farrell et al. Tries may win games, but only when there’s the platform to score them, and few do it better than Sarries as the wolfpack mentality produced 22 turnovers and allowed Goode to carry 11 times for 125 metres. Clermont can be one of the most dangerous clubs and are imperious at home, but are susceptible on the road as their Top14 season has shown. On another day against a different opposition, the stats they posted would have resulted in a comfortable win rather than a 46-6 defeat, but Sarries tight five produced a masterclass in blitz defence.
More Heineken-fuelled controversy
It is a rare day when Welsh referee Nigel Owens takes a lot of flak for his decisions and the anti-Saracens brigade certainly seem to have been out in force on social media. The major incident—sending Clermont outside-half Brock James to the bin for deliberately batting the ball into touch from his own goal area and awarding a penalty try—it may be harsh, but it’s all about interpretations. The yellow card was nailed on; easy decision. The contention is whether it should have been a penalty or penalty try. The law says it doesn’t have to be a definite try-scoring opportunity, just probable, and had James not cynically despatched the ball it could easily have found its way into the hands of a Saracens player—benefit of the doubt should always go to the attacking team. The issues for Clermont were not so much decisions made by Owens, but their own game management. Benson Stanley’s disallowed try in the first half for obstruction was sinful given how easy a score it was from a rare defensive misalignment from Saracens. Had the mistake not been made, Clermont may have had more of a chance of getting back into it, but as has happened so many times, their heads dropped and Saracens’ backs cruised through the match on their way to six tries and a record score in a semi-final.