NorthNot long ago, the Easter weekend was reserved for end-of-season club tours and festivals. These days, the Christmas egg hunt is much more serious with 32 teams preparing for the crucial European qualifiers that could still shape the evolution of the tournament for years to come.
Due to the impact of Covid-19 on the group stages, the organizer, European Professional Club Rugby, has chosen to introduce a round of 16 in the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup followed by quarter-finals next week. The new draw has produced a feast of compelling cross-border matches, and if rugby turns out to be palatable enough for audiences and broadcasters, the format could be repeated in the future, The Guardian understands.
The looming Good Friday disagreement between two former European champions, Leinster and Toulon, in Dublin provides an excellent example of the sudden death chill. From 2009 to 2018, the two clubs won seven European Cups and, following France’s recent Six Nations win against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, there will be no complacency in Leinster’s ranks despite Toulon’s tough defeat by 54 -16 against Lyon last week and the subsequent suspension of his former All Black center Ma’a Nonu.
That state of mind is reflected in Leinster’s fully international roster and Johnny Sexton’s return as captain, as the Pro14 champions look to secure a quarter-final match against Exeter or Lyon. However, the proximity of so many major parties in the immediate aftermath of a hectic Six Nations allows little recovery time and some feel it will favor certain nations over others.
No one used to enjoy the traditional pool cut and push more than Munster in his title-winning years and Jerry Flannery, the former Ireland hooker who now trains at Harlequins, finds it perfectly suited to the Irish provinces. “I loved the old format: having to fight your way through a group. It gets so tight and having been used to working in the Irish system it is a very good precursor to test rugby. In my opinion, the guys who can perform at that level are ready to play test rugby. “
With the new format there is less certainty: “This one feels a bit like: ‘We’re under time pressure, let’s finish the games,'” and Flannery feels the Premiership’s “relentless” nature could give them a battle-hardened advantage over some of his Pro14 opponents. “I can’t tell you if it’s better or worse, and Exeter is the current European champion, but it’s different,” says Flannery.
“When I was in Munster, I respected the Premiership teams we played against, but the Irish teams were able to build their seasons into Europe and test rugby. This season, from what I have seen, the Pro14 has not been competitive outside of Irish teams. It was the worst thing I have ever seen. The Pro14 is certainly not as physical as the Premiership. “
Who knows, furthermore, what hidden mental cost the Six Nations have taken on certain key individuals? It will be interesting to see France’s international contingent back down after their epic competitions against Wales and Scotland with the national captain, Charles Ollivon, packing for Toulon alongside his national colleagues Romain Taofifénua and Swan Rebbadj, not to mention the experienced Sergio Parisse. and Eben Etzebeth.
Leinster will miss Jamison Gibson-Park and Garry Ringrose, but his Lions Sexton hopefuls Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan start. Gloucester, meanwhile, welcomes Scotsman Chris Harris to his midfield against a strong-looking La Rochelle, currently second behind Toulouse in the Top 14. Former Saracen bolt giant Will Skelton introduces himself to the visitors with standout French number 8 Grégory Alldritt on the bench.
The final game will be watched by England head coach Eddie Jones, who will attend four games over the weekend. He even plans to attend two games on Saturday, starting with Wasps against Clermont Auvergne at lunchtime before risking Christmas traffic down the M5 to study defending champions Exeter against rising French Lyon.
Along with his assistants Simon Amor and Matt Proudfoot, he also plans to spend the Easter Sunday night at the Stoop, where Harlequins will face Ulster in the Challenge Cup, the last match of a packed weekend to examine the credentials of various hopefuls. . be English representatives.
If the Bristol Bears and Sale Sharks can win at Bordeaux and Llanelli respectively, it would certainly highlight a gap between England’s fifth-place finish in the Six Nations and the competitiveness of their leading clubs.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism