No sooner did the Six Nations pass into recent history than the European Champions and Challenge Cup quarter finals burst onto the scene. I watched two games in Dublin in quick succession and it was fascinating to compare. No doubt that the stakes were high as England made their tilt for a Double Grand Slam and with Ireland apparently creaking after a disjointed performance lacking creativity in Cardiff. They also lacked their talismanic Murray and Heaslip, so surely England were not to be denied after an imperious performance against a Scotland who believed the record books from the start – i.e. no victory at HQ since 1983. Instead they had the life squeezed out of them reasonably easily and never looked like winning. The lack of intensity at the ground was almost a cunning plan hatched by the whole Irish crowd as well as the players and with minimum fuss England were marginalised and had to celebrate the 6 Nations title with a rueful smile on what may have been.
Cue the European Champions Cup Quarterfinals featuring Leinster and Wasps, full of top Internationals. The Aviva Stadium roared in anticipation and the intensity was clear from the off. Some stunning tries and consummate skill on display, with a comprehensive win for the Irishmen. I was left with a strange feeling of wondering which was the International match – all it really meant is that the when the conditions are right European club rugby is peerless in what it offers. By contrast, despite a much more entertaining Six Nations this year with many tries out of the top drawer, the results became the story in particular for England and most farcically in Paris as somehow France extended themselves for a full hundred minutes to squeeze controversially past Wales.
So, not only these two matches to savour, but after Munster predictably dismantled an ageing Toulouse the European semifinal will be again at the Aviva between Munster and Saracens – almost too good to be true. Talking of whom, you had to be present at Allianz Park to realise just how impressive were the marauding Saracens. Even the best All Black performance would have stood scrutiny to this. On arrival however , all you could hear or see were bagpipes and the sky blue of the Glasgow Warriors.It was impressive and unique given this travelling support exceeded recent home crowds of the Warriors. I loved their supporters chant but it left Sarries unfazed. They ripped Glasgow to pieces with irresistible rugby and with no little skill. Four possible tries other than the ones they scored in the first half, all corner flag affairs. This was no squeeze but a demolition job. Glasgow looked shocked and so were we. They will come again for sure , and they stayed strong as you would expect with so many Internationals in the squad. However, Farrell’s supreme performance eclipsed even Sexton in Dublin and Wrigglesworth confounded previous opinion about his limitations. It is tempting to say that they cannot be bettered on this form, but they will be the third English side in recent weeks to travel optimistically to the Irish Capital.They are the defending Champions and by no means squeaking through their big games, so the momentum is with them if they can cope with Irish passion and a Munster who are playing with their hearts on their sleeve.
Lastly, I risk ignoring the French at my peril. The National Side may be flattering to deceive at present, but La Rochelle is the real deal. The seaside town on the Atlantic coats is the runaway leader gf the Top 14 and now contesting the Challenge Cup semifinals against Gloucester . I saw them dismantle Toulon on their home patch and while that is no longer such a feat it was still mighty impressive in their pace and ball handling, uniquely in France with the exception of the giants of Europe, Clermont Auvergne. The Yellow and Blues will fancy themselves against Leinster in Lyon near their heartland and so guaranteed a massive home support. The shock away win by Stade Francais against the Ospreys means that they will face down a legion of Bath Internationals on their home patch- this is an achievement in itself given that they were nearly a non-club last week. Watch out for more corporate club action as many struggle financially.
For now, let us celebrate a quarterfinals to remember and the best semifinals in prospect for many years.