Champions Cup semi-finalists set for hit of reality

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The death of the Premiership has been greatly exaggerated. Seemingly every week there is a new story written about another Premiership star player seeking greater riches in France, and how this hemorrhaging of talent will fatally harm English sides’ competitiveness in Europe.

And yet, for all the doom and gloom surrounding the parlous finances of the game in England, 50% of the sides in this year’s Investec Champion’s Cup (rugby’s equivalent of the Champions League) semi-finals are English. Northampton Saints and (my beloved) Harlequins have both made it this far playing fast-paced, thrilling rugby, built around a core of young, home-grown talent, that has allowed them to outperform the constraints of their smaller budgets and make England the leading contributor of teams to this year’s semi-finals.

While this achievement should be greatly applauded, in the semis a dose of reality might hit. The route to an all-English final at the Tottenham Stadium in London on Saturday 25th May runs through Leinster and Toulouse, and there, at the homes of Europe’s two most successful teams of all time, it probably stops.

If they can repeat their display against Bordeaux, Quins have the players to reach the final.

The first semi-final sees Northampton travel to Croke Park in Dublin to play Leinster. Leinster at home is always a frightening prospect. Bookies’ favorite to win the tournament overall, they are hunting a record-equalling fifth title, and a first since 2018. Having lost the last two finals, motivation to prevent a painful three-peat could not be higher, however Leinster took a huge stride towards banishing any lingering demons with a 40-13 victory of Stade Rochelais in the quarter-finals, the side they had succumbed to in both of those finals.

In a side that could be easily substituted for the Ireland side, it is almost impossible to pick out the stars. But their back row of Van de Flier, Doris and Conan look set to wreak havoc, whilst James Lowe is one of the most physical wingers in Europe.

Northampton do not lack hope. Domestically, they are flying high at the top of the Premiership, and their backline is one of the most lethal in Europe. Alex Mitchell and Fin Smith are the form halfback pairing in the northern hemisphere right now, and the tempo they play at allows young outside-back stars like George Furbank, Tommy Freeman and Ollie Sleightholme to tear teams apart, as the Vodacom Bulls found out in the quarters, pumped 59-22. Winning away at Munster in the pools showed they have also developed a real steel to their game as well this season. Leinster in front of 82,000 at Croke, in the first rugby game there since 2010, is probably a bridge too far though.

If they can repeat their display against Bordeaux, Quins have the players to reach the final

Harlequins earned a trip to Toulouse for their first ever semi-final thanks to a stunning 41-42 win away in Bordeaux. Fancied by nobody, not even their super fans (I had put £5 on Bordeaux to win the tournament back in September), they shocked the rugby world by ‘swinging the bat’. Marcus Smith was his customary magical self as he utilized his arsenal of lethal young backs to devastating effect. Will Evans has won the most turnovers in Europe, and Fin Baxter must be England’s future at loosehead after he demolished Ben Tameifuna in the scrum, one of the best to ever do it, and moreover a more than 140kg behemoth whose nickname is ‘The Fridge.’ If they can repeat their display against Bordeaux, Quins have the players to reach the final.

Toulouse have the pedigree and the players. They last won this competition in 2021, and are hunting a record-extending sixth title. They hammered Exeter Chiefs 64-26 in the quarters, and have beaten Harlequins already this season, thumping them 19-47 at the Twickenham Stoop (attending that game, I said to my dad beforehand I had been lucky enough never to see Quins get thrashed live – famous last words…) In Antoine Dupont, they have the consensus pick for world’s best player, not that they really need him given the monstrous scale of their pack, where monstrous Galacticos like Manny Meafou, Richie Arnold and Jack Willis lurk ready to destroy allcomers. A lethal backline is headlined by Romain Ntamack (fit and balling again after missing the World Cup) and Thomas Ramos, whilst it’s surely unfair to be able to call upon the likes of Marchand, Flament and Capuozzo from the bench. Toulouse are scary. The chances of Toulouse losing a home knock-out for the first time since 2006 are practically nil. But I’m biased and I love Magic Marcus.

Image: justinhourigan via Wikimedia Commons

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