The pool stages of the 2021/2022 European Rugby Champions Cup concluded last weekend, with all places in the knockout rounds now confirmed, and seeing each team in action has allowed us to predict how far they could realistically get. If watching games has not been possible, then this brief tactical analysis will bring you up to speed with all of the main talking points and tactics, picking out two good teams, two not-so-good teams and two who were perhaps unlucky with the way things turned out for them.
We realistically have to put Leinster into this category, as they were arguably the standout team across all four matchweeks. What was particularly evident was the level of creativity they played with, constantly seeking to link different parts of the team together, and Bath and Montpellier both struggled to keep them back as a result. In fact, the French side ended up giving the Dublin-based side too much space at times, such was the amount of pressure they were under; something that Leinster didn’t need but gladly accepted.
They look like the complete package at the moment, and the fact that no-one has been able to stop them is one reason that they are now seen as the frontrunners for the title.
Connacht were another Irish team that showed really impressive form during the pool stages, and their attacking quality mostly originates from fly-half Jack Carty, who was excellent in possession. His ability to spot open spaces and make good passes throughout games helped Connacht to ask questions of their opponents in all four encounters, with the 36-9 opening weekend win at home to Stade Francais primarily down to his spatial awareness.
However, where they really gained attention was during their two games against English Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers, when they dominated the play and made it really hard for Leicester to keep them back. Not many have been able to go toe-to-toe with the Tigers this season, but Connacht did, and this is why they will be tough opponents for whoever they come up against during the remainder of the competition.
First of all, let’s be clear; Toulouse have not been a disaster. They have still advanced to the knockouts, which is always the first aim, but it is also clear that they don’t look as good as they did last season, when they took the European title. It is difficult to say if Covid cases in the squad has anything to do with this, but, Antoine Dupont aside, they haven’t looked as threatening this season. In their opening round game away to Cardiff, they struggled to turn their early dominance into points, whilst mistakes made against Wasps were another indication that they haven’t been firing on all cylinders.
This will be a worry for them, especially with other teams looking so strong, and a second successive European title may be beyond them as things stand.
Like Toulouse, Exeter Chiefs haven’t played badly during this season’s European campaign, and they have also made it through to the knockout stages. The problem is that they still look out of sorts, with their 22-7 loss to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun a big disappointment, as that was a game that they might have taken something from on another day. In the return fixture against the Warriors, they conceded two very easy tries on the try line, and having a strong defence is something we have long associated them with, so it is evident that they aren’t in top form at the moment.
There are positives, as they did display some nice touches against Montpellier in their opening game, with clever angled runs making it hard for the French team to defend against them. However, their trip to France in the fourth round was another bad day for them, as Montpellier took full control and it was fortunate that the Chiefs weren’t depending on a win in this game. They aren’t a bad team, but they just don’t look as strong as we know they can be, and that will be their main concern.
The reason that Cardiff are in this section of the roundup is that they have been hit by Covid badly during the campaign, with their first game at home to Toulouse coming as the majority of their first team were in isolation, having been caught in South Africa (alongside Scarlets) as the outbreak of Omicron was announced. The players who did feature in the pool stages played incredibly well and deserve credit for the way they kept going, but it was always going to be an uphill battle for the team once they had had this bad luck.
They did look stronger against Harlequins, but the Premiership’s defending champions are in form this season and were in the mood to make things difficult for the Welsh region. It is impossible to say that Cardiff would have won with their first-choice players available, as they probably wouldn’t have, but we will never know now.
It might have been expected that Bath would go under the previous category in this analysis, but we need to remember that, despite them experiencing a really poor season, they did face Leinster and La Rochelle, both of whom play quickly and punish any gaps left open by their opponents. The French side were last year’s beaten finalists, whilst the Irish side are looking increasingly likely to lift the trophy this season, so the luck of the draw was not on Bath’s side.
To their credit, they did give it everything they had against Leinster in their opening round meeting, but Leo Cullen’s side were relentless in the pressure they applied on Stuart Hooper’s players, and it was the same story with La Rochelle, who also proved to be too much for the Premiership strugglers to deal with.
However, when Bath found their attacking rhythm, they scored tries, but the problem was that this newfound confidence often came after they had shipped points to their opponents, as was the case in the third round meeting with La Rochelle. However, this does still demonstrate a spirit and fight that they now need to take into their domestic campaign, aiming to not prop up the remainder of the Premiership’s teams when the season comes to an end.