EUROPEAN RUGBY QUARTER-FINAL weekend is here… but, hold on, something’s amiss.
I can see Connacht nestled there in a tantalising Challenge Cup clash against the unofficial fifth province. But, silly Champions Cup: you’ve forgotten to include the Irish teams! LOL… oh.
That’s right, the horror is all coming flooding back now. Wasps in the RDS! Saracens dominating with 14 men in Belfast!.Oh gawd, that second half in Paris — MAKE THE FLASHBACKS STOP, he’s just a boy!
Okay, okay. Deep breaths. Let’s take our medicine and move forward, maybe even think about how great next season is going to be wit – fingers crossed – four teams to cheer on in thee Champions Cup. That’s right, European rugby. The three Irish provinces outside of mighty Connacht aren’t giving up on you. Here’s why.
1. The best team in Ireland is playing, and everybody east, north and south of the Shannon should be taking notes
They may have only just slipped into second in the Pro12 table, but show me somebody who’ll argue that Connacht are not the most cohesive, focused and entertaining force on the island this season and I’ll show you somebody who’s wrong, wrong, wrong.
Connacht are leading Ireland into modern rugby, one beautiful pass from the hands of a prop at a time.
In Grenoble (KO Saturday 8pm, BT Sport), Pat Lam will (or at least, should) be tempted to play a weakened team with an eye on a big finish to the Pro12. But it doesn’t matter, whatever XV he puts on the field, the trademarks of Lam’s work will be evident: attacking intent, hot hands and boundless energy.
2. The ghost of Paulie’s future v his old pal
What might have been.
Everybody’s favourite super-rich back-to-back-to-back European champions take the TGV north to Paris for a Sunday afternoon clash with Racing Metro (KO 16.15). What a headache it would have been for Ronan O’Gara and his fellow coaches trying to second guess Paul O’Connell’s pack. Alas, injury took O’Connell off the field. But not out of European rugby…
3. Present Paulie bolsters Jackman’s Grenoble
Bernard Jackman and Grenoble have insisted that POC is only hanging around training with his friend Mike Prendergast while the rest of the O’Connell clann make the most of any snow left on the Alps. But man, he looks good in coaching pose.
Of course, O’Connell’s coaching knowledge gains will probably make the task of Connacht’s pack all the more difficult. Yet it’s hard not to be encouraged by the experiences Irish coaches are picking up abroad.
4. And there’ll be Irish involvement on the pitch too
Amidst the Saracens, Leicesters and Toulons of this world, if you’re struggling to find a team to like in the Champions Cup, consider Exeter Chiefs (v Wasps, Saturday 15.15, BT Sport).
Unheralded, usually unfashionable and far from England’s rugby heartlands. Still, the Chiefs have built an unrivalled work ethic with shrewd signings. Not least of whom are Ulster bred wing and out-half Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson.
Steenson is best known for his steady goal-kicking, but he is an excellent game manager. And, when he sniffs a snoozing defender, he has the hands and feet to roast them.Source: Lizardo Lizardos/YouTube
We’ll also be keeping two eyes peeled for JJ Hanrahan, though the Kerry kid (soon to turn 24) will likely ride the bench with Stephen Myler set to start away to Saracens (Saturday, 17.45, Sky Sports)
5. Not to mention the man, the legend… the Strings
Sale Sharks will get the weekend under way at home to Montpellier on Friday (19.45, Sky Sports).
The finest 10 we may ever see turned 34 last month. Don’t miss any chance to watch him play.
7. Wasps – so hot right now!Source: Premiership Rugby/YouTube
Between the electric talents of Charles Piutau and the persistent breakdown brilliance of George Smith, Dai Young’s Coventry-based club are no longer a dark horse for the Champions Cup, they’re contenders.
Challenge Cup: Sale Sharks v Montpellier, Sky Sports, 19.45
Challenge Cup: Gloucester v Dragons, Sky Sports, 12.45
Champions Cup: Wasps v Exeter Chiefs, BT Sport, 15.15.
Saracens v Northampton Saints, Sky Sports, 17.45
Challenge Cup: Grenoble v Connacht, BT Sport/ESPN, 20.05
Harlequins v London Irish, BT Sport, 20.05
Champions Cup: Leicester Tigers v Stade Francais, BT Sport, 13.45.
Racing Club 92 v Toulon, Sky Sports 16.15
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