Talk to most Premiership players and they will tell you winning in Europe matters. Really matters. As obvious as it is to say there is no doubt it is a step up from the league and some of the games we have seen this season have illustrated this perfectly with test match intensity.
The Challenge Cup is often derided as being of minor importance. Tell that to the fans and players. The Challenge Cup has evolved and strengthened with some very strong sides involved in it and let’s not forget previous winners have included Munster and Harlequins.
For the Gloucester boys Friday night in Edinburgh is a opportunity they have given themselves following that sensational win over La Rochelle. The other big carrot being waved at Challenge Cup participants is the opportunity to then go for qualification for the Champions Cup.
It would be fair to say this season must have been frustrating for the loyal fans of the Cherry & Whites. I don’t personally feel they have played particularly badly and thought they went toe to toe against most of the Top 6. Looking at the players they have - how impressive has Ross Moriaty been! Young Lewis Ludlam has made a brilliant step up to first team rugby and I think the guy has a serious future. With big Ben Morgan that is a tasty back row. Throw in the wonderful Willi Hienz at scrum half who has been inspirational and the fast improving Bill Burns and there is talent a plenty in the side. I was surprised to see Billy 12T on the bench as maybe big match experience will count but then again Mark Atkinson has been playing at the top of his game and Matt Scott is a wonderful centre. Nice problems in a way for David Humphreys to have in selection.
Stade Francais are sending over the A team for sure with all their literal heavyweights involved. There is the perennial problem French teams have which is fitness so I am hoping Glos can use their pacemen to play at a good tempo and force Stade’s hand. It they show the fight and dog they did against La Rochelle they can win this.
Saturday sees two bits of European royalty converging on Murrayfield. Saracens, fairly new to the heights of European rugby facing Clermont consistently seen as one of the best clubs in Europe but just fluffing their lines everytime they get to the knockouts or finals.
It would be simplistic to boil this one down to attack v defence as Saracens have shown against Toulon an outstanding off-loading and running game. However their default position is a defensive game and Clermont can’t think the best way to overcome the London side is to just run at that wall of red and black a la Munster. I like the look of the Clermont team and you have to feel this is probably their best chance of winning. You can only keep failing for so long before it begins to seriously affect performance. Look at the All Blacks. Best team in the world for so long and it took a huge slice of luck with a refereeing decision to allow them to eventually squeak past France and get that long awaited World Cup win. That tells us Clermont like the All Blacks tighten up and get nervous as the game progresses with every player desperate not to be the guy who messes up and ‘drops’ the cup.
Should Clermont get a good start as they did against Leinster then I think confidence will build and allow them to hold on against Saracens. The champions won’t give up their crown without an almighty struggle and they seem to be a team with nerves of steel as epitomised by Owen Farrell. They are unbelievably tight as a group and have fantastic stability in the side. Most of the 23 have over 100 caps for Saracens and they all read each other and understand how to implement the Saracens system so well. They are not unbeatable by any stretch but in a tight corner they won’t panic and will make smart decisions. With the spine of their team featuring so many English players and let’s not forget British & Irish Lions it feels a little like a mini Six Nations match up. Saracens should have the quality and more importantly the mentality to prevail.
So good luck to both English sides and wouldn’t it send a message out about the quality of the Aviva Premiership if both titles are claimed.