A top-level player has good reason to feel disorientated at this time of year. One minute he might be running out for a Six Nations finale in Dublin, the next he is returning to the same stadium in his club colours for a European tie having sandwiched in a league weekend. So much for the notion of post-championship rest and recuperation.
To be successful on all fronts demands huge mental strength and, even more importantly, a home draw in the Champions’ Cup last eight. In the past three seasons all but two of the 12 quarter-finals have gone the way of the host team, with just one club – Saracens – bucking the trend. Of the six semi-finals, just one victory (Racing 92 over Leicester at the City Ground in Nottingham) has occurred on foreign soil. “It can be done but the majority of home teams do tend to go through,” said Dai Young, Wasps’ director of rugby, before his side’s eagerly-anticipated trip to Leinster.
Scratch a little deeper and the task of winning big cross-border away games is growing steadily harder. Two years ago – discounting all matches involving Italian sides – there were 18 pool victories by away teams. Last year there were 17; this season that figure dropped to 12 from 54 matches played, a success rate of 22.2%. Overlay that with the recent Six Nations, in which England were the only team to win on the road anywhere other than Rome, and the challenge facing Wasps, Toulouse, Glasgow and Toulon this weekend should not be underestimated.
Who, say, gives Toulouse a realistic chance in Limerick where Munster, determined to do the late Anthony Foley proud, have won their three pool games against Glasgow, Leicester and Racing by an average 24-point margin? What price Glasgow on the artificial turf of Allianz Park after the defending “double” champions Saracens stuck 53 points on a startled Bath on Sunday? Can Toulon possibly upset Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin, where the hosts are averaging 45 points a game in Europe this season? Rugby union is not a game of inevitable verdicts but the case for the defence is not encouraging.
No away win this season, admittedly, has had more of a ripple effect than Glasgow’s 43-0 raid on Welford Road, Leicester’s heaviest defeat at home in a competitive match in the club’s 137-year history. The argument in favour of the Warriors, however, has since been undermined by Scotland’s implosion at Twickenham; to out-run Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Chris Ashton and co will make the result against the Tigers look like a routine jog.
When Toulon last visited Clermont back in January, furthermore, they were thumped 30-6; with coaches Mike Ford and Richard Cockerill around only until the end of the season and Matt Giteau injured again, the erstwhile European champions are not quite the force they were. The same applies to Toulouse, currently ninth in the Top 14 with just two away league wins – at Pau and Stade Français – all season. It is hardly the kind of form to send a shiver down Munster spines as they eye a first European semi-final for three years.
All of which lends additional lustre to the meeting between Leinster and Wasps at the Aviva Stadium. Even without Ireland’s victory on St Patrick’s weekend this would be a fixture to rouse the imagination and prompt significant questions – are Leinster properly on the way back? Are Wasps’ forwards as good as their backs? Might one or two Lions bolters lurk on both sides?
What a glorious contest it will be if Wasps can tap into the heady spirit of 2004 and recreate that epic semi-final against Munster at the old Lansdowne Road? Danny Cipriani opposite Johnny Sexton, Kurtley Beale and Willie le Roux leaving vapour trails, Nathan Hughes and James Haskell back for another crack at Sean O’Brien et al … the Premiership leaders against the Pro12 pace-setters will supply all kinds of fascinating answers.
Rattling around in recent memory are two other striking games: Wasps’ 33-6 pool win last season, Leinster’s heaviest defeat at home in Europe, and the equivalent fixture two years ago when Christian Wade scored a trademark special only for Wasps to let slip a 20-8 lead and lose 25-20. If both sides’ finishing is as precise and deadly as normal, a vibrant spectacle is almost guaranteed.
Both average over four tries per game in their respective leagues this season, although Leinster have conceded 11 fewer tries in their 18 games. That could just be the difference this weekend, with Stuart Lancaster’s influence having also boosted his new side’s morale. No coach would cherish this season’s European club crown more than he.
Young, for one, is approaching the game in realistic mood: “They’ve got half the Irish pack and half the Irish backs too.” If there is to be an away win perhaps the likeliest destination is Edinburgh where La Rochelle, out in front of the Top 14 pack, kick off the Challenge Cup quarter-finals on Friday night. Yet even France’s current top chiens will recognise the challenge ahead. Leaving another country victorious is growing tougher, whatever the colour of your jersey.
A visit to the annual HSBC National Schools Sevens seldom disappoints and this year was no exception. No fewer than 823 teams battled it out over 2,748 matches and the presence of the national sevens coach, Simon Amor, among other scouts, underlined its reputation as a talent breeding-ground. It hardly took a genius to spot that Cassius Cleaves of Wimbledon College’s triumphant U14 side is one to watch but my personal award for team of the tournament was shared between Ysgol Dyffryn Aman, who won the girls’ title for the third straight year, and the beaten girls’ finalists Blundell’s. The Devon school possessed only three players who had played any rugby prior to January. The prize for this season’s swiftest learners is in the bag.
And another thing …
It has been reassuring to hear players and coaches expressing scepticism about plans for the domestic Premiership season to stretch from the beginning of September to the end of June from 2019, with international tours to follow in July. Christian Day, chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association, called the proposal “a step in the wrong direction” and he is dead right. Giving players the odd match off cannot obscure the need for a proper pre-season; even if it turns out to be a case of staking a theoretical claim to a now-vacant month, the notion of an 11-month rugby season is utterly ludicrous. If there are compelling reasons to extend club rugby into June then fine – just as long as the season’s opening game does not take place before 1 October.