Although I am clearly biased, it was hard not to be held in thrall by the quality of the latest weekend’s rugby in the Champions and Challenge Cup as well as some of the drama and unexpected outcomes. At the same time, national interests have suddenly awoken with squad announcements leading up to the most uncertain Six Nations tournament in years.
Having spent last weekend in France surveying home wins everywhere of varying conviction, there was a different but equally compelling menu on show this time. In the Challenge Cup, Newport Gwent Dragons played with great skill and composure to see off Castres, who seemed to lose their discipline as they threatened to make a strong comeback led by a stunning performance from winger David Smith. Rodney Parade was boisterous and very vocal as the Dragons roared into the knockout stages with a game in hand. Sale block their way to a home tie in the Quarter Finals. It will be a cracker tonight against the in-form northerners.
An even better clash took place at the Stoop where Cardiff played a sensational second half, taking the Quins to the brink. The home side, with a multitude of high performing England hopefuls, had achieved a bonus point before half time but the Blues showed that a massive salary cap imbalance wasn’t going to stop them demonstrating that they are a force to be reckoned with, even if unlikely to progress further. Meantime, Conor O’Shea’s widely heralded departure to Italy could be the spark that Italian Rugby needs for a much-needed recovery at every level, given his top coaching ability. I don’t discount Zebre’s three wins, which were impressive, but Worcester’s home defeat may tell something of their focus on the Premiership.
Who could not applaud Russia’s Enisei on their second win – this time over Newcastle following their victory over Brive. It’s a fine performance and they deserve every credit. We haven’t seen the last of them and they must use such results as a stepping stone to go on and achieve greater things.
Finally, a Grenoble v Edinburgh clash is mouth-watering as it’s all to play for as Pool 5 winner. Grenoble, of course, will be dreaming of a Lyon final, just round the corner from their picturesque home ground. Worth mentioning that tickets for the May 13/14 Finals, both being held in the brand new Grand Stade de Lyon, have sold fast – so don’t delay if you want a top Rugby weekend in the May sunshine of Eastern France.
In the Champions Cup there is no getting way from the fact that the Irish provinces are all in a restructuring phase. No shame in that after their collective and impressive success over the years. However, Munster’s pride shone through after their miserable time against the Stade Francais in Paris. I still have a sneaking feeling that the Parisian side will edge through to the knockout stages but they have some confident Tigers in their path who have impressed with their ambition and above all composure – and they will wish to keep the momentum going. This is a new side still finding its way but only getting better. I definitely fancy them for the Semi Finals at least. Meanwhile, Leinster put on show their evidently talented squad of tomorrow, whatever the results so far. Bath may be off colour but I prefer to admire the talents of the likes of Ringrose and Madigan, who outshone their illustrious counterparts on the day. They will be no pushovers for Wasps at the Ricoh, who need to win to top their group after the heartbreak against Toulon.
Joe Simpson’s performance – among a team of heroes – was stellar on Sunday. I make a bet that he will be playing for England before the season is out. Interestingly, I took some stick for suggesting that James Haskell would feature this year, but it seems that Eddie Jones has earmarked him for the short term, possibly for leadership as much as anything else. As far as Toulon are concerned, I can only reference that my old team, Bath, would often bring out last minute winning plays. It’s a sign of class and quality – I can think of some international teams who would had given much for that ability in the World Cup. The French side travel to Bath with the West Countrymen having a great opportunity to make a statement themselves – but it will be very tough.
Back to Wales, where Osprey heroics leave Clermont on the brink in Pool 2, which has proved every bit as dramatic as the so-called Pool of Death, and they travel to Exeter full of intent. Their West Country hosts blew an obvious chance to be right in the mix against Bordeaux, who played sevens for most of the match – but that proved enough against a weakened squad. I took a brief look at the announced Wales squad and I see quality across the board in key positions. Early comments from the coaching staff suggest a wider angle to their attack, and perhaps even Jamie Roberts struggles with that remit. What strength they have; some great experience as well as youth – a good bet for the Six Nations despite some tough away trips, especially a vengeful England.
Lastly, what can you say of the peerless Saracens and Racing 92? They look very dangerous, primarily because neither of them are out of second gear yet. Another batch of confident Englishmen led by Farrell – who should play 10 for England in this form but rumoured at 12 for now – were far too good for Ulster. I cannot work out the criticism of their playing style – hard, aggressive defence and a great attacking style putting paid to top European and English teams… what’s not to like?!Racing’s strength on the road will hold them in good stead for the pressure to come but they have a glint in their eyes which I like and their home form is irresistible. This wouldn’t bear correlation to the recently announced French squad which could return some much-longed-for élan, but much more would be speculation. After all, even Scotland are targeting the Six Nations title! Mind you, that assumes a win over England in the first match, which if it happened would deflate the mini bubble surrounding Eddie’s selection. He has made a clear break with the past – fair enough – and has little time to construct his team but already English hopes are on the rise. Eddie himself remains sanguine, amusing and enigmatic. Many of his possible team are in cracking form so that’s a bonus.
Before all that, a host of tasty European clashes await us and many twists and turns are still likely. Can’t wait.