Champions Cup Team of the Tournament
OPINION: After an intense first 40 minutes at St James’ Park, where Leinster had threatened to swing the momentum in their favour, Saracens emerged victorious in the Champions Cup showpiece with a consummate second half performance.
The reigning Premiership champions picked up their third European title in four years, a feat which makes them the most successful English side in the competition, bypassing Wasps’ and Leicester Tigers’ marks of two titles apiece.
That said, the final alone does not tell the story of the entire competition and there are a surprising number of non-Saracens and non-Leinster players that have cracked our XV of the tournament. But, do you agree?
15 – Alex Goode, Saracens
Saracens’ Mr Consistency delivered again in the final, reaffirming his spot in this XV. Not only did he repeatedly provided his side with a dangerous source of counter-attacking and incisive attacking play, his competitions for the ball in the air and his pressure-relieving tactical kicking also bordered on flawless. He played every minute of Saracens’ Champions Cup campaign and there’s a good chance that, without him, they wouldn’t have lifted the trophy on Saturday.
The difference? pic.twitter.com/sKRIZbcQHl
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 12, 2019
14 – Cheslin Kolbe, Toulouse
The diminutive South African has been in sublime form all season for Toulouse and some of his very best performances have come in the Champions Cup. He didn’t quite trouble the top try scorers in the competition, but his evasive footwork and elusive running lines tormented everyone that the French side came up against. Plenty of flowing breaks that were started by Kolbe were finished off by the likes of Maxime Médard and Sofiane Guitoune cruising over the tryline.
13 – Garry Ringrose, Leinster
A strong showing in the final from Alex Lozowski did give plenty of pause for thought, here, but Ringrose was one of the shining lights that helped Leinster get to St James’ Park in such emphatic fashion. Whether running dangerous lines off Robbie Henshaw or a Johnny Sexton loop, or making pinpoint defensive reads in the 13 channel, Ringrose delivered clinically throughout the tournament.
12 – Brad Barritt, Saracens
Never the most exciting player, Barritt is the heartbeat of Saracens and the blood, sweat and tears he shed this season were what lubricated the cogs of that relentless north London machine. His work in defence was a given, such are the standards he has driven there, but it was also the composed execution in attack – and not just as someone who can straighten the line – which really proved the difference this season.
11- Simon Zebo, Racing 92
Perhaps no player flourished under the bright lights of the Paris La Défense Arena in big European fixtures as much as Zebo did. Just like Kolbe, he thrived with his combination of fast feet and ability to quickly move through the gears, leaving plenty of would-be tacklers clutching at thin air in his wake. He switched between fullback and wing throughout the tournament but wherever he was deployed on the pitch, the Irishman added a cutting edge to Racing in attack.
10 – Owen Farrell, Saracens
One position battle which went all the way to the final, with Farrell just about edging it on the day. Finn Russell had a good competition in the French capital, whilst Danny Cipriani’s efforts in the pool stage were also noteworthy, but Farrell just oozed class on the big stage. He also led the tournament in points scored for the fourth season in a row, which is a remarkable individual achievement.
9 – Antoine Dupont, Toulouse
The 22-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last three or four seasons and it is arguably this Champions Cup campaign where he has firmly established himself as one of the most incisive scrumhalves in the global game. In attack, he repeatedly showed his game-changing ability, whether as a carrying option or a support runner, or in his penchant for providing as quick ball as possible to his dangerous backline. Were it not for France’s struggles at international level, Dupont may be being discussed as the top nine in the game right now.
8 – Viliame Mata, Edinburgh
Coetzee, as mentioned before, slides to six, whilst CJ Stander and Jack Conan both had good seasons, but Mata’s performances at time bordered on unplayable. It wasn’t just his powerhouse carrying and flashy offloads that ensured he rounded out a trio of Edinburgh players in this XV, it was also the endurance and industry of his displays. The Fijian got through a mountain of work throughout the tournament and his selection wasn’t just down to the eye-catching attacking ability that made the highlight reels.
7 – Hamish Watson, Edinburgh
Just like Schoeman, Watson was integral in Edinburgh’s march to the knockout rounds, with his work at the contact area providing his side with plenty of opportunities to attack on the transition. It wasn’t just at the breakdown where he excelled, either, with his tireless work as a carrier and a tackler also helping to separate him from the likes of Francois Louw and Jackson Wray, both of whom also impressed.
6 – Marcel Coetzee, Ulster
Coetzee slides over from No.8, where he played for most of the tournament, in order to accommodate an indisputable selection, as the South African put last year’s injury struggles behind him in emphatic fashion. His physicality and work rate in defence, in particular, was vital in the narrow wins over Scarlets and Racing 92, two results which helped book Ulster a quarter-final that not many predicted prior to the season. His complementary role alongside Jordi Murphy was one of the most encouraging things about Ulster’s campaign.
5 – Tadhg Beirne, Munster
Munster’s sole representative in the XV which speaks to both how well Beirne has performed this season, and how intense the competition is at every spot, with so many stellar performances this campaign. Beirne edges out the likes of Itoje and Leone Nakarawa for this final spot in the engine room and that is largely based on his turnover work at both the breakdown and the lineout. He led the competition with a staggering 15 won turnovers and he was consistently able to alleviate defensive pressure on the province.
4 – James Ryan, Leinster
Talking of mountainous men with an abundance of energy and work rate, Ryan never stopped this European season. He frequently led the province in both tackles and carries and these were not ‘stat sheet-stuffers’, these were dominant one-on-one tackles on the gain-line and powerful forays with the ball in hand that would regularly see him break the first line of defence and give Leinster plenty of forward momentum. The ongoing battle between him and Maro Itoje continued to delight, too.
3 – Tadhg Furlong, Leinster
It’s a mark of Furlong’s quality that even though he didn’t seem quite as effective this season as he was in the last campaign, he’s still the standout tighthead in the competition. He kept Leinster’s scrum ticking along nicely from the pool stage to the final and his energy and work rate in the loose continued to amaze for a man his size. The rest of the world is still playing catch up with the man mountain from Wexford.
2 – Jamie George, Saracens
Another spot where the performances in the final were needed to separate the two top candidates. Sean Cronin was unlucky to be coming off an injury, although that should not detract from George’s excellence and precision at the set-piece. Saracens’ lineout was ruthlessly efficient this season and the hooker played a major role in that, whilst continuing to deliver impactful carrying and tackling, often for long shifts.
1 – Pierre Schoeman, Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s unlikely run to the quarterfinals was one of the stories of the season and Schoeman was front and centre in that charge. Acknowledgement is due for finalists Mako Vunipola and Cian Healy and whilst their consistent, high level of play deserves plenty of applause, neither felt quite as decisive in how their team went over an 80-minute period as Schoeman did for Edinburgh. Between him, Stuart McInally and WP Nel, Edinburgh’s front row looks to be in good shape for the coming seasons.
By Alex Shaw, @RugbyPass