After a bruising and attritional Autumn International series it is straight back to work for most of the players. This weekend will see most of the star names pitched straight back into their club or provincial sides for crucial European cup games.
Personally I loved the autumn internationals and feel very positive now about the Lions chances next year. With Irelands’s win over the All Blacks, Scotland’s massively improved performance and the continued rise and rise of England rugby – my goodness we are in a good place in the Northern Hemisphere.
Don’t get me wrong I am not thinking we are going over to New Zealand and teaching the All Blacks a lesson in how to play rugby. For me they are still the best team in the world. However there is definitely momentum in British and Irish rugby and I can see the Lions being incredibly competitive next year.
Just sit down and start to pick your second rows and then you will realise how much choice Warren Gatland is going to have. When the Lions last toured in 2013 England were in a re-building phase with too many player s with just a handful of caps whilst Scotland and Ireland through a mixture of injury and form did not have too many contenders. Now – it is totally different and you can genuinely see huge competition from each of the home nations for the starting Test 15.
For now however although we might still have half an eye on Lions selection it is back to club rivalries and European pride. I was so lucky to play in a sensational Wasps side that did so well in European rugby so I really appreciate what it means to the players. Make no mistake this is the big one and this weekend is a big step up in intensity and skill from the league.
Matches that I have been busy setting the pre record button on include Saturday’s clash in Limerick. Munster v Leicester Tigers is one of the tastiest clashes you can ask for. Munster have been on a sensational run of form and will be feeling very confident in the comfort of fortress Thomond. Ex England Coach Andy Farrell has been doing a very fine job there and it is good to see Munster back to where they should be as a major threat in Europe. I do however have a sneaky feeling Tigers though will take some taming. They have class in their side and with Ben Youngs hoovering up plaudits for England and Freddie Burns growing into a bit of a classy fly half – the two half backs will relish this. In the forwards Tigers also have power and skills a plenty and there will be no backward steps taken. For a start I think coach Richard Coke ill has banned those! Expect passion, ferocity, big hits and some very loud singing for this game. The atmosphere is going to be absolutely electric.
Another big Ireland v England clash is Northampton Saints v Leinester which should be another cracker. The two teams have history and if you remember the bizarre situation last time they played when Leinester humbled Saints at home with a real thrashing which somehow was turned around when Saints went out to Dublin and won. So all bets are off on this one. Saints do need to look to win this weekend if only to cheer up their fans as there has been an air of doom and gloom over Franklins Gardens and the players and coaching staff will be really hoping that this competition is a chance to show Europe that they are a serious challenger.
The Scottish challenge in the Cup comes from Glasgow Warriors a team I have a lot of time for. Under Gregor Townsend they have blossomed into a very fine side. There Scottish internationals will come back in and give a big boost to the team for their trip over to Paris. Racing 92 must still be licking their wounds over the narrow loss in the final last year and with a certain Mr D Carter pulling the strings at fly half will be well placed to grab the victory this weekend and set themselves up for another tilt at the title.
Last year’s champions Saracens have a home tie against Sale Sharks which you feel should be a formality. Although Saracens have not been at their best in the Premiership the one thing I have noticed about this side is that when they really need to raise the intensity they usually do so Sharks may struggle to come back from North London with any points in the bag.
High flying Wasps welcome Irish side Connacht to the Ricoh for what should be a fascinating encounter. Connacht’s head coach Pat Lam has steered the province from the threat of complete annihilation when the IRFU wanted to cut the number of provincial sides from 4 to 3 - up to the heady heights of winning the Pro 12 title. That is some journey and Wasps will need to be fully on message and sharp to counteract the threat posed by Lam’s side.
Looking at the sheer class in that Wasps side you have to think they are favourites. There could be a few anxious fans given some of the players who will still be missing for this game but I think they should be strong enough to get the win on Sunday.
The only English side facing a French team this weekend is Exeter and they take on Bordeaux Begles. To me Exeter seem to have sparked back into life and are showing the spirit that got them to where they are. It’s a home game for the Devon boys and so I feel they are going to come through this one with a French scalp.
Ulster have got a seriously dangerous opponents with the very classy Clermont visiting. Clermont have never won the European tournament despite being in a number of finals. They are such a good side it feels like they must get there in the end. Will it be this year? Ulster are a very, very good side and will welcome back a number of Ireland internationals making this a pretty mouth watering clash and another two hours I will need to find at the weekend!
A mention for my ‘home’ team Gloucester who beat a very strong La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup. The Cherry & Whites have a fantastic record in this competition but they will be really looking to kick on a make sure they secure a place next year in the Cup. It is a fantastic motivation for all the teams in both the Pro 12 and Avivia Premiership to get into the top competition and adds that extra bit of spice and interest right up to the final day of the season with so much at stake.
So – hopefully the Christmas shopping is done and if not just get online and sort it out in the morning. You can then relax and enjoy an absolute feast of Euro rugby.