And so we now get to the tasty bit of any tournament. This weekend we are being treated to knock out rugby in the shape of the European Champion and Challenge Cup quarter finals.
The big boys tournament, the Champions Cup, features two English clubs alongside two Irish one Scottish and three French Now that is a pretty tasty looking set of European teams. It would have been superb if the Scarlets could have sneaked in there as well but the match ups on offer are guaranteed to have rugby fans packed into pubs and stadiums. This stellar line up is so much better than last year where it seemed like an Anglo-French affair. Saracens for instance only attracted around 9K to their quarter final against fellow prem side Northampton but this weekend against Glasgow the North London club will host a 15k sell out.
My old club Wasps cross the Irish sea to take on a fully firing Leinster side at the Aviva stadium in Dublin. Tough place to go. This is a tricky old fixture to predict as Wasps last year beat Leinster at the Aviva in the pool rounds so won’t be too phased by the crowds or occasion. The big old stumbling block here is this is a very different Leinster side that has bought through some great young talent and improved overall by a significant margin. England’s old boss Stuart Lancaster has come in as defence coach and whether it’s his famous culture and attention to detail - or just his good rugby brain - the boys in blue have upped their defence game in spades. Meanwhile it can have escaped no one’s attention that although Wasps are scintillating in attack in defence they often play as it is an optional extra.
Looking at both teams and potential line ups Wasps will be bolstered by the return in the pack of Joe Launchbury who was just immense for England and also in the pack will be the hard-hitting James Haskell. You have to say that apart from defence Wasps other weakness may be in the tight five Launchbury excepted. If they can secure ball and play out of their skins their backline is World class and very All Black like can score from anywhere particularly when play breaks up.
Leinster rested a lot of their internationals last week in the Pro12 so should have their top-class talent fit and firing. Probably a slightly better balanced team than Wasps and how fascinating is it going to be to see Sexton opposite Danny Cipriani. I can see Sexton putting a few bombs up in the air to test the speedster Christain Wade’s aerial defence as well as Irish back row pressurising the middle channels where Wasps’ exemplary ball players are probably not the most robust in defence.
So two teams who like to play but Leinester with the advantage of being better defenders. As much as my heart says Wasps I have a feeling Leinster will nullify that Wasps attack better than most teams do and might find gaps of their own to put some of their exciting young players like Henshaw and Ringrose through.
Glasgow Warriors head south apparently accompanied by an army of 6k fans to take on last year’s champions Saracens. I like Glasgow a lot and how impressive have they been in the way the team has developed and become such an attacking threat. This fixture has a whiff of Scotland v England about it with Glasgow boasting no less than 15 Scottish internationals and 13 of them who started in the last Six Nations. Saracens meanwhile have their half dozen current England boys plus the likes of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and Brad Barritt.
This game is probably an easier one to call as I think most pundits are tipping Saracens to have this one covered. The sheer fire power in their ranks is breathtaking. It is not just the Vunipola brothers who offer such ball carrying threats as watch how Itoje now carries as well as Jamie George and the underrated Jackson Wrap. Once a team starts getting on the front foot it is very hard to keep re- setting your defence and you are always marginally behind the gainline. Glasgow do not have the biggest pack so my feeling is Saracens will dominant there and this will allow them to get their backs such as Ashton, Maitland and Goode into the game and scoring tries.
It will take something special from Glasgow to upset the odds here but of all the teams capable of doing this I would say Glasgow could. It will be interesting to see if the England v Scotland game has any bearing given the team that day had a pack that was half Saracens and of course a Scotland team featuring mostly Warriors. I reckon the atmosphere will be cracking however with that army of Scottish fans in full throttle and determined to do their bit to help their team create history.
The Challenge Cup is a funny old beast that does not get the attention it probably deserves. There are some top sides in this competition with the massive incentive that the winner qualifies for the Champions Cup. When you think La Rochelle the current leaders of the Top 14 are in one quarter final and teams of the quality of Ospreys, Bath and Gloucester are all involved it really is not a Mickey Mouse tournament.
I would obviously love to see Gloucester put on a big performance as this competition could be their route into The Champions Cup. Cardiff Blues their opponents have had a pretty poor season but as we all know its knock out rugby and that plays with your mind. With the talent Gloucester possess I think as fans we all get frustrated as so often they are in winning positions and then implode. Times are changing at the club with new coaches coming in and new owner so let’s hope the Cherry & Whites can make a statement.
Bath need to shake off the hammering they received from Saracens last weekend and play to their strengths. They have a cracking side with plenty of internationals so should be able to lift themselves at home in The Rec and secure a big win over low flying Brive.
So my beauties there you have it - enough brilliant match ups to make you get up early to do the shopping, walk the dog and mow the lawn so you can settle down all afternoon to watch some scintillating rugby.