The hits are harder, the line speed faster and the fans more passionate - you have got to love the European Champions rugby cup. It’s a big step up from club rugby and with more at stake the intensity goes up several notches. As a player I could not wait for those games and with Wasps I was lucky enough to be part of a team that achieved some great things in Europe so I have a real affinity for the competition.
It is an Anglo-French affair this weekend as the first knock out games of the tournament will have the fans hearts racing and nerves jangling. It is sad not to see an Irish team challenging at this stage for the first time since the tournament started but I honestly think it is cyclical and they will be back in contention next year. No English club has won it for a long , long time and often only had one club reaching the knock out stages so it shows how things keep changing. The only disappointing thing is Welsh club rugby which despite a sensational national side fails regularly to produce a region who can make even the quarter finals. Scottish rugby as we know has really picked up and although not represented this weekend I think will be in the mix next year.
The Wasps v Exeter game is one for all rugby fans to savour. Exeter look the complete team with an ability to maul you to death allied to some sparkling and intelligent backplay. However watching Thomas ‘The Tank Engine’ Waldrom rubble over for so many tries makes me think I have seriously underperformed in my career! Wasps offer something a bit different. Their back row is immense and with the wily George Smith reading the play better than anyone since Richard Hill it gives them a better all round game than they have had for a while. Their line out is wobbly so Exeter may thrive on that but as a team Wasps with the addition of All Black Charles Piatau and his brother look very dangerous indeed.
If Saracens play against Northampton as they did so sensationally against Exeter in the Premiership they will win comfortably. However teams are not machines and you can’t always raise your game on demand. Saints are coming into form and improving all the time plus have won a few big games at Sarries home ground so will feel confident they can win.
Finally Leicester on Sunday take on Stade Francais a team sadly on the slide. Tigers should hope to win that one putting them into the semi finals for the first time in a while. Given that the Tigers have lost some of their dominance in the English club game this is a real achievement for them and shows the old adage of never writing off the Tigers is still true. Well done my furry friends.
Whatever the result what pleases me most is we will see at least one English club reach the finals. Should Toulon or Racing make it too Lyon in May will serve up another crunching Anglo-French spectacular.
Allez les rosbifs.