There are cycles in sport, and in rugby most certainly. I remember in my first year as Chairman of EPCR in 2015 the absence of Irish teams in the KO stages was notable and caused much soul searching in the Emerald Isle. But their development structures and off field management were excellent. Now they reap the benefit and will do so for years to come, both provincially and nationally.
In France, the resurgence has been slow but inevitable, and masked by the performances of Saracens, Leinster, and the Toulon Galactico. Now it is irresistible.
The quarterfinal stage this year was in my opinion the best ever in the competition. Standards were off the charts in general and show just what it takes now to win these coveted trophies.
Leicester defended brilliantly for long periods in Dublin and will be mortified to have shipped 50 points, but Leinster were unplayable at times. Ringrose, Gibson-Park, and Keenan were stunningly sharp and dictated a pace that English sides can only dream of. Wrigglesworth the coach can point to the limitations of the salary cap in England but it’s the style of play that is different.
As it was in Toulouse – an international match played out in club jerseys. The Sharks were magnificent and so unlucky not to be ahead after an hour- they then ended up also shipping 50 points! Brutally unfair, but three loose balls and the French were lethal with their counterattacking running lines. The old videos of Blanco, Sella and Charvet bore comparison.
The story in Exeter was unusual but uplifting. Youngsters stepping up from within lower-level club rugby – the unacknowledged pathway- together with some of the veterans to unseat the travel weary Stormers. Despite that wonderful spirit and youthful exuberance, I cannot see it being enough to deal with the defending champions La Rochelle who saw off the Saracens with a Sarries-like display from yesteryear.
The Challenge Cup has also come into its own this year. The dramatic last-minute win for the youthful Scarlets over French giants Clermont was memorable, and with Glasgow, Toulon, and Benetton (aka Italy) in the mix, the semi-finals are mouth-watering.
A gladiatorial contest- no other word for it- awaits in Dublin for Leinster v Toulouse, I just hope that the hype doesn’t overwhelm the occasion which will contain at least a dozen of the world’s best players. Wow.
Only one English team out of the eight semi-finalists in both competitions tells its own story. As I said, cycles exist but the English clubs will worry about the growing gulf in class and ambition at the top, not helped by the self-imposed squad limitations. That’s another story.
For now, let us celebrate the significant achievements of those left in the competitions, what a weekend awaits at the end of April.