Not everything in Euroland is a mess ... just take the rugby
Super Rugby simply can’t compete with the superb quality on show in Europe’s Champions Cup
If you watched last weekend’s quarterfinal matches in Europe’s Champions Cup you would have been well pleased with your choice of viewing.
Super Rugby offered nothing comparable. Even the two supposed feature matches, Hurricanes-Crusaders and Sharks-Bulls, failed to live up to their billing.
The Hurricanes were too far off the pace to make a proper contest against the defending champions, while the clash in Durban proved a drab, soulless affair, punctuated by error.
At least three of the four European quarterfinals were compelling. Every decision, action or inaction seemed magnified as the competition rolled into its knockout phases. Even in pool matches every play carries greater weight as it may influence the result, especially where matches are decided by paper-thin margins.
There can be no doubt that playing in the Champions Cup steels players more for the cauldron of Test rugby. The pressure is constant and the intensity is unrelenting.
Saracens crushed Glasgow Warriors 56-27 in a typical show of force, but the flame of spirited competition burnt brightly in Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris. Collectively only eight points separated Munster, Leinster and Toulouse from the respective teams they beat: Edinburgh, Ulster and Racing 92.
Johann van Graan’s Munster were always going to have to dig deep against Edinburgh, who have been refortified since the arrival of combative coach Richard Cockerill. In the end Munster’s superior pedigree in the competition helped see them through – but not before Edinburgh reminded us that they too deserve to sit at European rugby’s top table.
Home comforts were always going to be decisive for Leinster as they saw off the challenge of long-time rivals Ulster. Much of the passion in the Champions Cup and its forerunner, the Heineken Cup, is built around the unbridled tribalism at each venue.
Ulster have shown signs of a revival but they had their seven-match unbeaten run snapped by the defending champions, Leinster – a team of European rugby blue bloods who, along with Toulouse, hold the record with four wins each in the competition.
Toulouse’s win over Racing was a tense, gripping match that seemed to contain everything. It was pure theatre with the plot taking sudden, dramatic twists, no more so than when Toulouse flyhalf Zach Holmes was red carded as early as the 22nd minute. Toulouse somehow managed their disadvantage and even turned on the charm as evidenced in the magical offload of Lucas Tauzin in the buildup to Maxime Medard’s try. Somehow Toulouse, a team reborn, hung on for a 21-20 win.
Toulouse, who have fallen on tough times over the past decade, appear back where they belong. They went into that clash against Racing on the back of a seven-match unbeaten run and a streak of 21 matches in which they were beaten just once.
Fittingly perhaps, that defeat came away against Leinster, the team with who they are in dispute over the mantle as greatest team in European competition.
They are drawn to contest the semifinal in Dublin, which is a shame as a final showdown would have seemed more appropriate – although Saracens may have a thing or two to say about that.