Quarter final weekend for the Champions Cup is a big highlight in the calendar with four tasty games featuring the top sides in Europe to look forward to.
If there was a slight air of disappointment at the actual match ups that gave us teams meeting very familiar foes from their own leagues or pools - that went out of the window from the very first game.
Edinburgh have been sailing along on a wave of Richard Cockerill inspired self-belief. The ex-Leicester man has inserted some good old Tigers values into Edinburgh with the school of very tough love being the main one. Players have had to buckle down and work their socks off and the disciplined approach plus some genuine coaching nous has seen Edinburgh into a European quarter final. And they so nearly made that a semi-final too. I thought Edinburgh played such good rugby but ultimately it was the ‘cup’ team Munster who prevailed through their sheer will to win and ‘been there and done it’ attitude. Edinburgh got unlucky with a couple of decisions and when their prop put a casual shoulder into Tadgh Biernie it swung the game The Munster man went out of his way to ensure the referee knew it with a what can only be kindly interpreted as an over obvious reaction and Edinburgh learnt a harsh lesson about Europe. In big stakes games players will go right to the edge. Do we want to see players throwing themselves to the floor in rugby? Of course not. However, the lesson learnt in European rugby is that its high stakes so do not allow yourself to give the oppo a sniff to do anything like that at all. Shoeman, the Edinburgh prop, did not need to do what he did and in future knock out games I can’t see it happening again.
As for Munster – what is there left to say about this wonderful team. Their passion for this cup competition is so clear to see and as is often the case in rugby when you bring that to the table you can get over the line. They have to face up to Saracens now in the semi final but at the Ricoh Stadium where their fans will no doubt dominate, they will not go down without a fight. The Munster defence has been sensational during this cup run and Saracens will need to play a different game to break them down. Easy scores will not be given, and every Munster player will put his body on the line.
Over at Allianz Park there was a short flurry of excitement as Glasgow ran in a breathtaking try in the opening minutes and we thought we had a game on our hands. Saracens however reset and went again and proceeded to totally dominate Glasgow. The Scottish side could not live with the power of the Sarries pack aligned to slick handling and the skills of a Liam Williams, Alex Goode and indeed Jamie George. The England hooker put in a masterclass - whizzing passes out - particularly a scrum half pass to put David Strettle over for a try.
Sturart Hogg may have been regretting the choice of hair colour as his peroxide mop only served to highlight him even more when he made uncharacteristic error after error. It was a shame because he was still such a threat and showed he could unlock the Sarries defence. After the game it seemed Glasgow were dismissed as being poor but in truth this team had run Sarries very close up in Scotstoun and were in with a shout in the return pool fixture until Sarries got a couple of late tries. I had expected a bit more from them but Saracens even without new Dad Owen Farrell who was in the maternity ward were in the mood to play and when they are fully on it in European games most teams struggle to live with them. That Munster clash is starting to look very tasty indeed.
When the Leinster v Ulster quarter was announced most would have groaned. Predictable, a Pro14 regular fixture, a comfortable win for Leinster – all quite rightly would have thought. It turned into a stormer. It was a Test match like game with Ulster putting in one of their best performances for a while. Luck plays a role in rugby – of course it does – and also, we know there are some tiny little margins often between winning and losing. Jacob Stockdale the sensational Ulster winger worked his magic to put himself in a position to score a vital try and just failed to ground it. That was a momentum swinger and game changer. Leinster whilst not at their best and missing their talisman Sexton still had enough to see out the game and will have some key men back for the semi-final. The Dublin side has not looked as comfortable this year and looking at this quarter you can argue they were beforehand comfortable favourites. No one however will remember that if they go on to lift the trophy again in Newcastle.
The most entertaining game of the weekend was the all French affair which if you did not see it I recommend you try and find online and give it a watch. Drama all over the place with a red card for Toulouse in the first 20 minutes which contributed to a ‘throw caution to the wind’ approach and some quite scintillating rugby. The red card has ceased to be the game killer it used to be and whilst there is no doubt it is horrendously difficult to win with a man down there have been enough times it has been done to show it can also galvanise a team who feel hard done by.
Toulouse in Racing 92’s raucous and disco style stadium played stupendous rugby and Racing who physiologically thought they had ‘got this’ found themselves struggling to contain them. Why of why can’t the French national team play like this? Toulouse for their reward now get an away semi against Leinster which seems a little harsh! The new rules however state home country semi finals go to the higher seeds and Leinster therefore are once again back in the comforts of the Aviva stadium.
Is it just me or has Challenge Cup rugby got much more exciting? The quality of some of the teams on show has led to such cracking games and as nice as it was to see the quarters, I could have wished for a few more of the pool games to get a bit of airtime. Sides such as Clermont, La Rochelle, Connacht, Northampton and Quins surely merit that. The semis see Harlequins having to travel out to Clermont and Sale Sharks also take a trip out to France to face La Rochelle. Tough assignments for both those teams and you would not be surprised to see an all French final. Sale have a small squad and an eye on the Premiership league position plus Quins also want desperately to stay in a playoff place and get a tilt at the Premiership title.
So passports away now folks for the next two weeks as the Premiership starts its home run and with so much still on the line for most of the teams expect fireworks and more drama to come.