European Champions Cup semis: Jeremy Guscott on Wasps, Saracens & Leicester
Last updated on .From the section Rugby Union
|European Champions Cup semi-finals|
|Saracens v Wasps: Saturday 23 April, 15:00 BST, Madejski Stadium. Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra and online, plus live text commentary online|
|Leicester v Racing 92: Sunday 24 April, 15:00 BST, City Ground. Live commentary on BBC Radio Leicester and online, plus live text commentary online|
The latter stages of the European Champions Cup have had a distinctly Gallic accent in recent years.
Toulon beat Clermont in last season's final as Twickenham, the home of English rugby, hosted an all-French affair.
The same two sides met - with the same result - in the 2013 final in Dublin. And, just for good measure, Toulon also won the 2014 title.
This season, though, has seen an Anglo-Saxon backlash.
English teams fill three of the four semi-final slots, with Wasps and Saracens meeting in the first encounter on Saturday before Leicester take on Parisian big-spenders Racing 92 on Sunday.
So which players could ensure an English side become European champions for the first time since Wasps triumphed in 2007?
Winger Christian Wade has captured the headlines in the build-up to the match with six tries in the 54-35 win over Worcester.
It may have been against one of the Premiership's weaker teams, but it was still an amazing feat - and I don't think he is back to 100% yet after the foot injury he picked up in the winter.
By the end of the season, he will be razor sharp and Wasps' director of rugby Dai Young, as you would expect, is banging the drum for Wade to be included on England's tour of Australia or the Saxons' trip to South Africa.
He may well get to go. But he will have to make an absolutely stellar case to displace Anthony Watson or Jack Nowell as England's first-choice wings.
Nathan Hughes finally completes his three-year residency qualification to become eligible for England this summer, and the Fiji-born number eight will relish the chance to prove himself against Saracens counterpart Billy Vunipola, who has become one of the mainstays of Eddie Jones' England.
It is very easy to spot what the 24-year-old brings to a well-balanced Wasps back row completed by George Smith and James Haskell.
Hughes' eye for a gap, pace off the mark and ability to carry strongly with a firm hand-off means he can rampage in the loose.
However, it is also his attitude which impresses me. He works selflessly for the team and his discipline is watertight.
He only switched his sporting focus to rugby from hockey at 17 and there is even more to come from him as he develops.
Both he and Vunipola will say that the game is not about individuals but, having been there and done it, I know that facing your direct rival for an international spot brings an extra edge to the game for players.
Fly-half Owen Farrell is having the best season of his career. He has had to adapt to playing inside centre internationally for England, giving him a wider understanding of the game - and he can now unlock a defence as well.
A few seasons ago he would have given the pass to put a team-mate into a gap. Now he is running through it himself.
Farrell's kicking and defence have always been exemplary, but now he is a threat with ball in hand too. The improvements have been incremental over the past three seasons, but now you see him wrapping around behind his backline, and supporting and getting fully involved.
Sarries' 22-12 win over Harlequins at Wembley last weekend gave us a chance to admire the contrasting styles of the Premiership champions' full-back Alex Goode against England incumbent Mike Brown.
Brown is a very direct, physical player, committing fully to everything he does, whether it is fielding a high ball, racing across to make a cover tackle or running the ball back fast and hard at the opposition defence.
Goode is different. He is a well-balanced, elegant runner who has more guile than Brown and can anticipate what the field of play will look like in half a second's time.
His vision and awareness are more subtle qualities but mean he can pick the pass that will turn a half break into a try.
Wasps' quarter-final win over Exeter was amazing. They were 13 points down with fewer than 20 minutes to play and fought their way back magnificently to win with daring, dashing rugby.
But we should not have been surprised - Wasps showed in their pool stage wins against Toulon and Leinster that they can score tries from anywhere.
By playing a free-running game you are dealing in very fine margins, however, and Wasps will have to nail every pass, every offload and every angle to beat Saracens.
There is a lot that can go wrong, especially in a game of that magnitude and tempo against a superbly structured and fit defence.
Saracens' way of playing is not risk-free either, but it is a style they have been evolving and refining in reaching the last four at least in each of the past four seasons.
They have introduced a more expansive, attacking edge to their shrewd percentage-based game this season in anticipation of matches like this.
They could win the domestic title by playing as they did last season, but they have realised they have to score more tries if they want to reel in the really big prize - becoming champions of Europe. I think they will move a step closer to landing this one by beating Wasps.
Having suffered a broken jaw and a bout of Bell's palsy since he arrived at Welford Road in 2014, fly-half Freddie Burns has not yet reached the heights with Leicester that he managed with previous club Gloucester.
He is not the most fluid of fly-halves. It does not seem that he can bring together the distribution, running and kicking from hand in a complete performance. And he does not consistently dominate games at the moment as he did in his final two seasons at Kingsholm.
But one part of his game that has been functioning perfectly is his kicking off the tee. He landed six out of six in the win over Northampton last weekend and did not look like missing. That could be key this weekend.
Since he made his comeback after 15 months out injured, I have seen England centre Manu Tuilagi make breaks and big hits, but also miss his man and drop balls.
His form has been patchy as he finds his feet, but he is a game-changer. He can shift the momentum of a match in a moment and that is a rare ability.
He is likely to be opposite France international Alexandre Dumoulin against Racing 92. The France international is no shrinking violet and theirs will be an intriguing duel.
The Leicester-Racing semi-final will be tight and tactical rather than the fast and fluid encounter Wasps v Saracens promises to be.
It is a bit of myth that French sides don't travel well. They have been the strongest teams in this tournament in recent years and the influx of top foreign players into the Top 14 has helped shake that unwanted tradition.
But it is less than 30 miles from Welford Road to the City Ground in Nottingham where the match is being played and I expect it to be a bubbling atmosphere.
World Cup-winning New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter leads a galaxy of stars in the Racing line-up, but I think if Burns keeps up the accuracy of his goal-kicking Leicester will have enough to turn over the French side and set up an all-English final.
7 minutes ago
Watching a load of public school boys chasing a bag of wind around whilst fighting with other? Nah, you're alright...
Thanks for this clever (if a little inaccurate) observation. I'm surprised your carer left you alone long enough for you to get involved here. Worry not, she'll be along soon to change your nappy.
Sigh, whoever your carer is, they'd have to be patient wouldn't they? Nice attempt at recovery though, playing the prejudice card. Unfortunately it is hypocritical really, when you seem to have made the assumption that everybody who plays rugby is from a public school.
Instead of typing, I'd save your energy, you'll need it to blow up your date later on this evening.
Hmm...I'll leave you to visit any rugby club in S Wales, the West or the Midlands or Yorkshire to explain to them in person that they are a bunch of public schoolboys indulging in a homoerotic fantasy.
Maybe you can tell us which sport, if any, you follow, or do you regard it as an opium of the people?
Wasps v Tigers final would be great. The local crowd will love it!
I guess these things go in cycles. We MIGHT be on the verge of a few years of English success in the EC but will see - nothing won yet.
The Irish sides are not what they were but I expect them to be back in the medium term.
If Glasgow had more belief, they could feature at the knock out stages.
Welsh sides are a long way off and have no track record at the business end.
My heart wants Wasps (in absence of Glos...)...
'Watching a load of public school boys chasing a bag of wind around whilst fighting with other? Nah, you're alright'
That's fine. Go back to the darts, snooker, golf, and of course, Premier League. The BBC seem to find the monies for the non-sports and football. I'm sure you're pleased.
it is a very good achievement
Yeeesss...Irish rugby is not quite where it was four years ago but it's also clear that actually having to qualify for the competition is taking its toll.
You'll remember when Ireland's top players were playing roughly half the number of games played by their Prem or French equivalents. The fact that they were always so fresh for the big games can hardly have been a hindrance?
Racing pack too powerful. Imhoff a star.
Sarries v Racing final.
I assumed your mummy was female. Are you telling me I was wrong with that assumption?
"Pathetic English whinged,cried and huffed their way to new setup citing some bizarre reasons for it."
Bizarre? It was completely, shockingly corrupt! A Dublin (tax haven) based organisation dedicated to ensuring that a small number of teams always qualified and kept a disproportionate share of the prize money.
To her honest, a level playing field makes you guys look ordinary!
If you delete 'public' from your post, that's a pretty good description of football.
The cup will go to the home of sport -- LEICESTER, along with the Premiership Title, the Snooker World Championship Trophy, and everything else.