If this was prize fighting we definitely saw the heavyweight division this weekend in the European Champions Cup. All four semi finalists had lifted the trophy more than once so these were four teams who all knew exactly what it takes to lay hands on this particular piece of silverware.
Munster fans arrived in the West Midlands in force as they always do bringing noise and passion and saw their team deliver a colossal effort in taking on Saracens. It was always likely to be Munster defence against Saracens attack with the Euro stats showing Munster the best at keeping tries out and Saracens the best at getting over the whitewash. In sizzling April temperatures of 25 degrees the two sides both went toe to toe with the half time score showing the Londoners just in front. In truth Munster were under enormous pressure but what an incredible defensive effort with players flying up and putting in massive hits to halt Saracens momentum. Made me very glad to have hung up my boots!
The tackle rate seemed to take its toll and in the second half Saracens seemed to move it up several notches showing smart decision making around the ruck area and using their skilled kicking game to control territory. Ben Spencer scrum half for Saracens had the game of his life and must be pushing very hard for that third slot in the World Cup squad. Spencer kept making the right options which sometimes can’t be seen in the heat of the battle watching the big moments in a game. Slow the game down or watch it again and it is clear he was operating on a very senior level in terms of decision making.
With two very classy tries and a good sprinkling of penalties stretching the lead comfortably it put the English Premiership side once again into a final – their fourth in six years. Sadly for this incredible Munster side they have to deal with an unenviable record of six semi final losses.
Heart breaking for Munster players of the calibre of Peter O Mahoney, Connor Murray and Dave Kilcoyne to keep missing out but new coach Erasmus has got them playing better rugby. They also had to deal with injuries to key men such as fly half Joey Carberry and experienced winger Keith Earls for this crucial knockout and with those two in the side we would have seen a touch more attacking threat. The side are not that far away from scaling the heights again and if they can recruit just a couple more world class players they will be back to crack that semi final hoodoo.
Easter Sunday delivered us another beaut of a match with Leinster upping their game significantly to down the flying Frenchmen from Toulouse. The Dublin side seemed to slip pretty effortlessly into their European Cup mode and were class everywhere. Concerns over a rusty Sexton and out of form Sean O Brien were totally put to bed as both delivered alongside the stand out forward pack. Scott Fardy the Australian international was not down to play despite being one of their stellar players sde to a ruling on only 2 overseas players in the team. Fardy then given his chance due to injury to Rhys Ruddock put in a massive shift and shows how hard it is for the Leinster coaches to juggle their resources.
The Challenge Cup should not be forgotten as it has thrown up some incredible games. Harlequins were given the horror draw of playing Clermont out in France where virtually nobody beats them yet somehow came within a whisker of overturning the French. The England internationals currently out of favour with Eddie were putting up their hands all over the place with a fantastic game from Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw and Jack Clifford. Kyle Sinckler one of my favourite props has an edge to him for sure and has to be careful about those penalties but he has become an outstanding prop who like Mako can also slip into the receiver role and swing out a deft little pass.
Sale Sharks also gave the literally enormous La Rochelle team a run for their money in a weird and disrupted match that had poor Nigel Owens making more tough decisions in 80 minutes than he normally does all season. I was impressed with Sale who took out a strong side and gave it a real go and again much like Quins so very nearly upset the odds.
When it comes to the Champions Cup final in May it is going to be so very evenly balanced with a virtual Ireland v England feel to it given the number of home internationals in each side. Up in the ‘Toon’ there will be scant home advantage for Saracens and plenty of Irish support. This game is going to won on tiny margins you feel and because of that it will have us all totally gripped.