Could Ireland add both European Club trophies to a Grand Slam?
We provoke a shark every time we enter the water where sharks happen to be, for we forget: The ocean is not our territory -it’s theirs.
It’s a big weekend for European Club Rugby this weekend and I fully expect home advantage to be a key factor. Of the quarter-finalists in the Champions Cup, Racing 92 pose the only real threat of an away win.
Statistics are on the side of the home teams. Last season all home quarter and semi-finalists won. The year before that all home wins in the quarters with Racing 92 winning an away semi at Leicester. The pattern of home wins in the knock out stages has become fairly entrenched over a number of seasons and there is nothing to suggest this season will be any different.
La Rochelle is a talented team with a big pack but they’ve lost twice on the road already in the Pool Stage, and although Scarlets also lost one at home in their Pool -this game is just too big for Scarlets, for them not to turn up.
Clermont’s form has been patchy at best and that allied with Racing 92 playing away. but the inter-country flavour gives this match the biggest prospect of an away win.
Saracens have found the knack of winning an away quarter-final. They won away at Ravenhill in 2014 -but only by two points after Jared Payne was red-carded early on -and in 2015 by a single point at Racing 92. But Leinster is on another level and Saracens did well to get through their Pool with only three wins -I can’t see them getting a fourth.
Munster lost only once narrowly in their Pool Stage at Racing 92 and have put some good sides comprehensively to the sword at home. Toulon lost both their away games of note at Bath and Scarlets and I expect them to lose this one at Thomond on Saturday.
Of course, the Champions Cup isn’t the only European Rugby show in town. I was part of a Northampton team that lifted the European Challenge Cup 2009. We were undefeated in the Pool Stage winning away in Montpellier and Toulon. Home advantage in the quarters and semi-finals took us comfortably to the final where we beat Bourgoin at the Stoop. It was a scrappy affair -and I was involved in most of them.
This season I expect Pau, Edinburgh, Connaught and Newcastle to successfully navigate the quarters -all home wins. And despite the fact Edinburgh is in many ways the form side -having only lost once since the turn of the year -I think they will fall in an away semi-final. In contrast, Connaught has had much more patchy form but would have a home semi, possibly against Newcastle, and they could go all the way.
How much more remarkable could this season get for Irish Rugby -is it realistic to think they could add both European Club trophies to a Grand Slam?
European Rugby always throws up that little bit more excitement and intrigue as much for the players as the fans. In 2003-04 Ulster drew Stade in the Pool Stages -we won three at home and lost three away and didn’t qualify for the knockout stage. The following year we drew Stade again -there was a literally a huge cheer at Ravenhill from the playing group. We didn’t do any better -won three at home, lost three away and didn’t qualify. Why the cheer? The players had a great time in a nightclub the year before after the game, and they were looking forward to a reprise.
By Neil Best, RugbyPass