Rugby Champions Cup. After the attack, will the floor return to the defense?

Rugby Champions Cup. After the attack, will the floor return to the defense?
Rugby Champions Cup. After the attack, will the floor return to the defense?
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An old adage states that it is defense that wins titles. But so far, it’s the attacks that have been rewarded in the Champions Cup. With 41 tries scored during the quarter-finals, we broke records this season (+32% compared to 2022-2023, +78% compared to 2021-2022) and this offensive festival which gave the final phases of the Super Rugby-style competition contrasted with some of the austere tussles that are often the norm in the Top 14.

Two weeks ago, at the end of a bitter standoff with Toulon, Ugo Mola, the coach of Stade Toulousain, did not fail to underline this difference, pointing out the responsibility of the Top refereeing. 14 in the poverty of the spectacle offered. “The only reality of the French championship is that the attack is penalized a lot while in international competitions, it is the defense which is penalized a lot. »

Reward attack

The figures only marginally confirm the judgment of the Toulouse technician with 32.5% of penalties whistled against attacks in the Top 14 and 31.6% in the Champions Cup. But it is clear that defenders who struggle in the ground game benefit only from limited leniency. “The boxes fall quickly. There is zero tolerance for cynical mistakes,” notes Yannick Bru, the coach of Union Bordeaux-Bègles. “Attack-defense equity in the ruck zone is not a hobby horse for Champions Cup referees. Tony Spreadbury, the boss of referees at EPCR level, came to see us in Bordeaux. There is a bias which is to favor the attack, the spectacular dimension of the matches. Our efficiency in the scoring area doubled in the Champions Cup and that wasn’t just down to our mindset. »

But there are other explanations than refereeing for this much greater proliferation of tests in the Champions Cup than in the Top 14. “Our championship is undecided, exciting, but it also generates its share of stress with high stakes for the clubs,” underlines Franck Maciello, the boss of the referees. “The way we approach matches in the Champions Cup from the group stage is different,” continues Yannick Bru. The challenge posed is that of attack. You have to score four tries to get an offensive bonus. This changes a lot of things in the mental construction of the week. This difference in approach is materialized by the fact that in the Champions Cup, we rarely take points, we go for touch. This generates many more entries into the 22 meters. »

Friable Harlequins

Will the emphasis on attack still be relevant this weekend during the Leinster – Northampton and Toulouse – Harlequins semi-finals? “Given the forces present, we will witness two very offensive semi-finals,” predicts Yannick Bru. But it is also likely that between these very playful teams, it is the quality of the defenses that will make the difference.

It is to strengthen its defensive sector that Leinster recruited Jacques Nienaber, the coach of the Springboks. With 17 points and 1.5 tries conceded per match, the Dubliners present the most airtight defense of the four semi-finalists.

As for Toulouse, their ability to generate counter-attacks thanks to their defensive aggressiveness (4.5 balls won or turnovers won per match) is part of their heritage. “Toulouse’s defense will be a major asset,” judges Yannick Bru. It could be decisive against Harlequins, by far the most fragile of the quartet (29 points conceded per match).

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