EUROPE’S BEST DELIVER AN EASTER TREAT
The Double-Header weekends of the Heineken Champions Cup have been one of the season’s highlights so far. The last 16 format created supreme drama and stunning quality between Europe’s top clubs. These formats and dates have been moved around partly through Covid driven necessity and partly in a constant search to improve the competition. I know that personally, having spent many months at that particular negotiating table. You cannot stand still, and with both the domestic leagues and International tournaments rightly seeking to generate more relevance and interest, the world’s premier club competition is doing the same- and to great effect.
I also applaud EPCR’s focus on the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine and the support shown by the European clubs before every match.
Montpellier has never been synonymous with the Champions Cup, though have won the Challenge Cup twice. Coach Philippe St André has now capitalised on the combination of the talent and depth in their squad and the new focus on young home grown players, a deliberate French strategy. Even one of the greatest journos of our time was clucking over the appearance of an apparent reserve team for the return match v Harlequins only to find that they were good enough to see off (just) the in form but fallible Quins. Some of the touch play of the halfbacks in particular ( on both sides in fact) were on a par with the best skills we have seen this season.
In another classic, Toulouse quite brilliantly reeled in Ulster, but the abiding memory will be of International class play throughout from a host of players, not all of them French. Fellow quarter finalist Racing 92 will have to up their game to live with their compatriots, including the dangerous La Rochelle, but they always do in Europe. Toulouse have now to travel to Ireland again to take on the red shirts of Munster…… is Aviva as much a fortress as Thomond Park, we will find out but I suspect not. And they don’t have a Dupont!
Leicester meantime are showing their durability and consistency despite being the new kid (back) in town. Clermont are fading as a force in Europe but Leicester showed real maturity to close them out. I also love how they play without the ball, it is a mark of a great side in the making and you saw that against Exeter at Sandy Park in the league when they tackled the Devon side to a standstill as they tried to rescue the game. I wonder if Leinster is a bridge too far, because a near International side in the latter stages of Europe with that Irish pedigree and superb coaching to boot is an intoxicating combination.
Finally, a couple of snippets that should catch your attention.
1/ Steve Borthwick is predicting a return to much lower tackle levels in the game. Yes please, more coaches need to go public on this as horrific head contact proliferates (World Rugby where are you?).
2/ One of the biggest proponents of low tackling, Shaun Edwards, who may well be the man who turns the World Cup in France’s favour, was asked about coaching England recently. He implied that he could have been available in 2015 post the England World Cup débacle. But if you remember, Ian Ritchie shot off, panic-stricken, to Cape Town to wave a large cheque in front of Eddie Jones to try and put right a wrong and the window closed. How different things could have been. He also made the point subtly that there was no surprise in England’s early success under Jones given their previous underperformance but undoubted quality led by their Saracens component and others. Sustaining it is another matter………
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