TEAM OF THE WEEK: Champions Cup
OPINION: It wasn’t quite the classic weekend of European semi-final rugby that we all hoped for, with two one-sided results, but what it has done is create a tantalising final between two clinical and in-form teams.
Leinster got the ball rolling by defeating the Scarlets, 38-16, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, before Racing 92 saw off Munster, 27-22, in Bordeaux.
Rugbypass have put together an XV of the best performers from this weekend’s action and it only whets the appetite for what should be an exciting final in Bilbao in three weeks’ time.
15 - Rob Kearney (Leinster)
In a time when Leinster’s young guns are coming to the fore and shining bright, not enough is made of the reliability and stabilising influence that Kearney brings at the back.
The control and consistency Kearney brought on Saturday may not have seemed as influential as it was due to the gulf in class between the two teams, but he did not put a foot wrong and had the game been closer, it’s a performance that would’ve looked even more impressive.
14 Teddy Thomas (Racing 92)
Thomas blew Munster away with a breath-taking opening quarter, as the lethal winger ran in two tries and selflessly gave up his hat-trick to hand a try to his teammate, Maxime Machenaud.
13 - Virimi Vakatawa (Racing 92)
Vakatawa dovetailed superbly with Thomas on his outside shoulder and the pair proved far too potent of a combo for the Munster defence to deal with.
Vakatawa punched the holes in the defensive line and then used his speed and his comfort shifting the ball between hands to unleash the supporting Thomas and wrap up the result in the early exchanges.
His speed and footwork were a nightmare for Munster defenders to try and track and it often saw him power his way through would-be tacklers as he repeatedly gouged Munster for big gains. An engaged and confident Thomas is up there with the most lethal wings in European rugby and it looked on Sunday as if he was back to somewhere close to his best.
12 - Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
It was a fine return from injury on Saturday for Henshaw, who made it look as if he’d never been away.
Time and time again, Henshaw’s smart lines found holes in the Scarlets’ defensive line and though he never ripped off any massive runs, he was a constant source of line-breaks and front-foot ball.
11 - Steff Evans (Scarlets)
In a usually potent backline, Evans was the only player to remain a threat to Leinster, as the rest of the Scarlets struggled to deal with the lack of front-foot ball that the pack delivered .
Evans’ ability to create something from nothing with his footwork and change of pace produced a couple of moments of worry for Leinster – even if the outcome seemed beyond doubt – and his performance was noteworthy, if not result-defining.
10 - Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
The arch puppeteer continues to have the Leinster team dancing to his jig.
Sexton’s performance on Saturday bordered on immaculate, as he pushed and prodded his Leinster teammates around him and found hole after hole in the Scarlets defence. Not only did he facilitate the success of the players around him, but the flyhalf also shone as a ball-carrier himself, in an excellent playmaking outing.
9 - Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92)
Both Machenaud and Jamison Gibson-Park were given armchair rides by their packs and both were fitting candidates for this spot, but the Frenchman’s goal-kicking gave him a narrow edge over the Leinsterman.
Machenaud has carried his form with France in the Six Nations into the latter stages of European competition and he ran the game for Racing in Bordeaux in exemplary fashion.
8 - Yannick Nyanga (Racing 92)
Nyanga belied his advancing years in Bordeaux on Sunday, playing with the freshness and stamina of a man 10 years his junior.
The versatile back-row wrought havoc early on at the breakdown and disrupted Munster’s lineout, as well as being a powerful and elusive carrier. The Frenchman delivered a physicality and energy that Munster couldn’t live with.
7 - Dan Leavy (Leinster)
Just like Ryan, this young forward’s star continues to rise in a season where it seems he cannot put a foot wrong.
He was the perfect foil to the grinding and glue-like game of Fardy on the opposite flank, swooping in to steal the ball at the breakdown, popping up with impactful carries at the space between defenders and lining up carriers for big tackles in the areas between the fringes and the wider channels.
6 - Scott Fardy (Leinster)
If there were still many people questioning the wisdom of Fardy’s signing, given the wealth of riches Leinster have come through in the second and back-rows, they were surely proved wrong on Saturday.
The Australian did all the gritty, unseen work that any good side needs to be effective, including supporting ball-carriers, preventing counter-rucks and slowing down opposition ball. He grabbed a well-deserved try for his efforts and was only denied a second by being slightly too advanced in a ruck.
5 - James Ryan (Leinster)
This season continues to be an extravagant coming out party for Ryan, who has excelled in demanding arenas of Champions Cup and Test rugby.
His powerful carrying and tackling around the fringes played a significant role in Leinster’s dominance of the gain-line, both in attack and defence. Everything Leinster did well fed off this and everything Scarlets struggled with also seemed to stem from the battle lost in this area.
4 - Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets)
It was a largely abject performance from the Scarlets, who just couldn’t get anything going against Leinster, but if there was one man who had parity with the Dubliners, it was Beirne.
The second row's fine form shows no signs of ending anytime soon and the Irishman was a pest at the breakdown and with ball-in-hand. The Leinster lineout was a well-oiled machine at the Aviva, so he couldn’t have his customary spoiling presence there, but otherwise, it was an outstanding performance in a losing cause.
3 - Tadgh Furlong (Leinster)
Cedate Gomes Sa went well for Racing, but it was another impressive all-round performance from Furlong, who has surely now cemented his status as the most valuable tighthead prop in world rugby.
Not only was his scrummaging of its usual high standard, he also delivered in the loose, sucking in Scarlets defenders with his carrying and repeatedly showing good hands to link play and shift the point of contact.
2 - Sean Cronin (Leinster)
Not only was Cronin his usual energetic self in the loose, he also spearheaded the most consistent and accurate lineout of the four sides involved in semi-final action.
He connected well with James Ryan, Devin Toner and Scott Fardy and his mobility and intensity in the loose was key to Leinster’s dominance around the fringes, as he helped deliver quick ball and provided a reliable carrying option.
1 - Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)
It was a day to forget for Munster in Bordeaux, but if one player stood out, it was arguably Kilcoyne.
The loosehead helped Munster to a scrum advantage in the first half, really the only area of the game where Munster had the number of their opposition. He also delivered powerful carries in the tighter areas of the pitch, a facet Munster usually do very well in, but something which they found themselves largely unsuccessful at due to rabid Racing defence.