This season's Champions Cup has risen in quality and intensity as the changed format embeds further and the teams competing understand the landscape of the competition.
In a period that has been dominated by the English giants Saracens, particularly over the last two seasons, it has been brilliant to see other teams come to the fore, and my favourite team of this year has been La Rochelle. Having risen from Pro D2 in France to compete with the very best in Top14, they completely embraced the tournament and added another superb venue in Stade Marcel Deflandre and their 16,000 incredible supporters. Although they got knocked out in the quarter finals by Scarlets, their style of play and sheer exuberance are just what European rugby is all about, and their talisman Levani Botia is the embodiment of it all. Their away win at Quins and the two home victories against Wasps and Ulster not only announced them as a team to be taken seriously, but as a team opposing fans will want in their pool in future so they can experience the Rochelais roar.
On the flip side my biggest disappointment this year has been Glasgow. Although they were in a difficult pool with Exeter, Montpellier and Leinster, their inability to win all their home games made life difficult, and a win rate of one out of five clearly wasn’t good enough. it was a chastening experience and one they must learn from if they are to take their swashbuckling style into the knockout rounds next year.
No Scottish representation in the latter stages was almost mirrored by the English teams, with only defending champions Saracens making it to the quarter finals. Much has been made of the workload of the English teams and their internationals in particular, and it is hard to argue that their increased workload doesn’t take its toll when the intensity inevitably rises in Europe.
The Irish provinces of Leinster and Munster have seen a resurgence this season, as have Scarlets in Wales, and it is no surprise to anyone who has watched these teams play that they are all in the semi-finals along with the French royalty of Racing 92.
They are built on different things and have some stand out players, but if I was to pick one from each who regularly elevate their teams performances it would be Tadhg Furlong from Leinster, Peter O’Mahony of Munster, Hadleigh Parkes of the Scarlets and Leone Nakarawa of Racing (with a little bit of Dan Carter thrown in).
Furlong is pure class. A powerful scrummager and ballistic ball carrier, it is his ability to handle the ball like a fly half that truly sets him apart and adds so much to Leinster’s attack.
O’Mahony is the epitome of Munster’s stand up and fight attitude and he leads from the front in the biggest game. He has genuine influence and his ability to disrupt and steal lineout ball in pivotal moments is uncanny.
Nakarawa is a rugby playing marvel. As a second row who is an Olympic gold medal winning 7’s player, he has rewritten the rule book on the offload and continues to stun opponents with his ability to create chaos out of nothing.
Hadleigh Parks has blossomed into a tremendous rugby player and now Welsh international. His influence in the Scarlets attack and ability to straighten the line and commit defenders is beautifully subtle and key to their easy on the eye style of play.
The semi-finals are mouth-watering prospects and you have to feel slightly for Scarlets who travel to the “neutral” Aviva Stadium in Dublin to take on Leinster. It will be a sensational contest and one the home team are going into as undoubted favourites, although Scarlets will have happy memories of lifting the Pro14 title there last year. It’s a fascinating clash of styles with the clockwork efficiency of the Sexton-led Leinster attack versus the free flowing Scarlets, with Gareth Davies providing the spark. It will be a great match to watch and may well go down to the wire, but my money is on Leinster to go through with a little help from the “neutral” venue.
Munster travel to Bordeaux to face the mighty Racing 92 and have their work cut out against a team assembled with little regard for the pennies. It does feel though the sort of challenge this Munster team are ready to take on having grown quietly in confidence and performance. They are starting to look like some of the great teams of old. Andrew Conway’s match winning try against Toulon might be needed again to steal this game away from the French who sit second in the Top 14, and my only note of caution for Munster is encapsulated in two words…Dan Carter.
Overall I think Leinster must be favourites to lift the trophy but the semi finals will be two truly stunning affairs.
Leinster 28 Scarlets 23
Racing 19 Munster 21
Follow us across Social Media: /GilbertRugby