Rugby Warriors Step Up In Europe

As the final pieces of the pool jigsaw have dropped into place, so it came to pass that last year’s worries about Anglo-French domination of the European Champions Cup were way overstated.

The 2017 Quarter-Final draw just announced look dimensionally stronger than 2016, not least because Clermont has assumed their rightful place after the aberration against Bordeaux last year which let in Exeter to the knock out stages. In fact the dispassionate view has to be that there has never been a stronger last eight. Same in the Challenge Cup.

The emergence of Glasgow Warriors as a potent force could not have been better emphasised than by their dismantling of Leicester Tigers in the last round, after being shaded by Munster the previous week. Whether this pushes the Scotland National team to greater heights remains to be seen, and it is time that their status as brave losers is removed by some proper and deserved wins in the Six Nations. With half an eye on the Edinburgh Finals I couldn’t be happier to see Glasgow mixing it with the big boys for the first time ever. The recent Pro 12 champs are now living up to their billing. It is also encouraging that Edinburgh themselves are in the mix for the Challenge Cup, which looks so strong that it could be mistaken for the senior tournament with the likes of Ospreys,Bath and Stade Francais in the last eight. Sporting folk will be in for a cracking rugby weekend on May 12/13.

The Munster story just keeps getting better and I wouldn’t bet against them finding their way to Edinburgh urged on by their Army of tribal supporters. The emotion of their season has been enhanced by a steely determination as evidenced by their away win at Glasgow in Round 5, no mean feat. They may have less International class than Leinster but the hard warrior edge is there. The same may not quite apply to the Irishmen in Blue who were shown up consistently by a very muscular Castres. The likes of Clermont and Saracens not to mention Wasps will have noted that the direct, pacy approach adopted by Castres could put Leinster under serious pressure especially in their back line who impressed so much in Round 5 against a woeful Montpellier. Stylistically, it was noticeable in that match how the midfield three of Sexton,Henshaw and Ringrose were always the first receivers, a real change from the one stop pop to a lumbering forward. Other teams should take heed and follow suit.

Talking of warriors, the Saracens / Toulon collision was a Test match played out between two clubs. Toulon launched their heavyweights and were floored time and again by fanatical Saracen defence – the Wolfpack was there in force.Toulon in truth should have won, and I hope they reinforce the pitch foundations for the quarter final clash with Clermont because it will not be for the faint-hearted.

Six Nations Player Watch 

The tragedy of an injury to Fofana in the France midfield has been compounded by the prospect of the return of Mathieu Bastareaud. He certainly pulled his weight against the Saracens but the French revival may be slowed a touch by this news.

Ireland have selection problems – Jo Schmidt has an embarrassment of riches given the great form of Munster and Leinster and his decisions will be key to a successful campaign. Early ball into the midfield a la Leinster is critical as well as a marauding front five.

England talk strongly against a backdrop of injuries and poor form by key players – Leicester and Quins haven’t helped. Eddie holds great store by his training camps but the likes of Ireland and Scotland sense a shift in sentiment and so do I.

ps Daly for the 15 shirt ?

Wondering about the Welsh midfield – Jamie Roberts has been a rock,literally, but his old style running line may count against him. Will Howley bite the bullet ?

Thought Of The Week

Through all of Round 6 in Europe there was a grand total of ? yellow or red cards for dangerous tackles or contact to the head. Anyway, not many. Funnily enough, players have adjusted their tacking techniques because they fancy staying on the field. Not to mention that the game has suddenly got a whole lot safer. All good.