Saracens wrapped up a third Champions Cup title in four years when they powered to a 20-10 victory over Leinster at the weekend. It marked the culmination of a gripping European campaign that dazzled fans with all manner of excitement, drama and intrigue.
We were treated to feats of individual brilliance, magnificent team displays and a number of shocking blunders along the way, and the entertainment has been brilliant throughout. Here are the five defining moments of the season:
Vunipola’s Irrepressible Charge to Glory
Billy Vunipola lit up the Champions Cup final with a world-class finish to hand Saracens the initiative against Leinster. The marauding No 8 turned into a human bulldozer as he crashed through a blue wall and then he showed remarkable awareness and dexterity to reach out and plant the ball over the line.
The final will always be remembered for that moment, with four Leinster players hanging onto Vunipola for dear life but unable to stop his relentless charge towards the line. It was a moment of magnificent physicality and it was worthy of winning the biggest game of the year.
On the eve of the game, the big man delivered a rousing speech to his teammates and pledged to show up for Saracens in the final. “He did that in abundance,” said teammate Maro Itoje.
He delivered a titanic performance and it was enough to separate the best two teams in Europe. Vunipola has endured an injury-hit couple of years and he is very much a pariah right now after endorsing Israel Folau’s homophobic comments on social media. He cannot assuage the damage he has caused with one performance, but he certainly enjoyed the distraction of getting the job done on the pitch. His ability as a ball carrier is outrageous and his powerful all-round contribution swung this tight game in his team’s favour.
Byrne Holds his Nerve
Anxiety abounded among Leinster fans after they went into their quarter-final clash against Ulster without World Rugby player of the year Johnny Sexton, who has drawn all manner of plaudits from the expert pundits at
A great deal of pressure was heaped on the shoulders of Ross Byrne, but he proved himself to be a supremely accomplished deputy. The fly-half could have been forgiven for wanting the ground to swallow him whole when his loose pass to Garry Ringrose led to Ulster’s opening try after just six minutes. But he responded admirably and crashed over the line to level things up just moments later following some fine work from the Leinster pack.
Ulster performed defensive heroics, but Adam Byrne’s try finally broke their resistance and put the reigning champions ahead in the second half. Yet the game remained tense and it the end it came down to Ross Byrne to hold his nerve with a crucial late kick.
He was struggling badly with cramp and he looked shot to pieces, but he managed to slot a tricky shot between the posts at a crunch moment in the game. He limped off the pitch to a rousing ovation a few minutes later and Leinster hung on for an exhilaration victory over a dogged Ulster side in one of the most excruciatingly tense contests of the season.
Tauzin Inspires Stunning Victory for Toulouse
Toulouse’s all-French quarter-final tie against Racing 92 in Paris turned out to be the game of the season, packed full of drama, heartbreak and jubilation. The four-time European Cup winners came flying out of the blocks and took the lead when scrum-half Antoine Dupont exploited a gap in the Racing line. However, they found themselves losing 10-7 and a man down after Zach Holmes was sent off for a high tackle in the first half.
Yet Toulouse maintained their belief and momentum, and they scored a beautiful try on the half-hour mark to regain the initiative. A spectacular Lucas Tauzin no-look offload set Sofiane Guitoune on his way and the centre cut back inside to find the clinical Maxime Medard, who charged over the line for arguably the try of the tournament.
Dupont extended Toulouse’s advantage to nine points before the interval, but Racing roared back to life in the second half. They subjected Toulouse to ferocious pressure throughout the second half and they threatened to seize victory at the death, but some last-gasp defending saw Toulouse hang on for a famous triumph, sparking bedlam in the stands.
Toulouse went on to lose when they played Leinster in the semi-final, as Leo Cullen got the better of his opposite number and the Irish side surged into the final, but that triumph in Paris will live long in the memory for the fans, and Tauzin’s outrageous offload was the key moment.
Edinburgh Vanquish Montpellier In Thriller
The largest crowd Edinburgh have ever mustered for a European game rose as one to express their delight when Darcy Graham’s try secured a famous win over a star-studded Montpellier side.
Close to 12,000 fans inside Murrayfield witnessed Richard Cockerill’s men come of age as they extended their winning streak to seven games, topped Pool Five and advanced to the Champions Cup quarter-finals. What a remarkable turnaround Cockerill has overseen in the Scottish capital. Pundits noted that wins were in as short supply as spectators when he took the reins last season, but he has transformed Edinburgh over the past couple of years.
They were simply irresistible when vanquishing a heavily fancied Montpellier team, dominating large swathes of the game. It was tense until a Henry Pyrgos pass teed up Graham to score in the corner. The crowd roared, and spectators remained on their feet as the irrepressible Jaco van der Walt converted to hand his team an unassailable nine-point lead.
It marked the first time two Scottish teams had ever made the quarter-finals, as victory for Edinburgh ensured that Glasgow also qualified as one of the best runners-up, and it provided a shot in the arm for Scottish rugby.
Earls Finds the Corner
Edinburgh looked on course to reach the semi-finals when they opened up a half-time lead against Munster at Murrayfield. The Scots were 10-7 up as to Chris Dean’s converted try and a van der Walt penalty cancelled out Keith Earls’ intelligent opening score. Edinburgh retained a three-point advantage for much of the second half after van der Walt and Tyler Bleyendaal traded penalties, but Earls produced a moment of magic with nine minutes to go to turn the tie on its head.
Munster overwhelmed Edinburgh on the outside and a trio of slick passes found the winger in a dangerous position. Earls still had it all to do, but he displayed superb pace, strength and desire to cross in the corner and sink the home side. It was a brilliantly executed try and Earls was deservedly named man of the match thanks to his telling intervention.
It inspired Munster to a 17-13 victory and carried them into the semis, where they were overwhelmed by an Owen Farrell masterclass and lost 32-16 to Saracens. It will now be fascinating to see how Earls gets on at the 2019 World Cup, where Ireland are among the favourites to topple the mighty All-Blacks.