By Ed Wade
It has been a fantastic few days of European Rugby as three English sides made it through to the semi-finals. With two all English ties, we knew that there would be at least a couple of teams in the semis, but Leicester comfortably breezed past Stade Francais to make it through.
It was a shame really that Wasps and Exeter were drawn against each other. Both sides have been technically very good and have played well in this season’s Champions Cup, which is why it was disappointing only one of them could go through. In a very tense affair it was Wasps who were able to overcome Exeter winning by one point 25-24.
With Saracens and Northampton teeing off against each other. It was the two powerhouses of England, and eventually it was Saracens who came out on top winning 29-20 against an injury hit Saints.
Leicester were the third English team to go through to the semi-finals, easily dispatching Stade Francais 41-13. It was revenge for Leicester who had already lost to them this season 36-21. However, being on home soil clearly paid off for the Tigers.
So what now for the semi-finals? Traditionally in knockout rugby, power and strength will come out on top of the technical game. But with title holders Toulon getting knocked out by Racing, will it be the fluidity of Wasps that claims European glory, the powerhouses of Leicester or the Premiership favourites Saracens.
The Tigers season seems to be kicking into gear at just the right moment. They have a European semi-final to look forward to and the possibility of a Premiership semi-final. Their try scorers finally seem to have got into second gear.
The game against Stade Francais was a whitewash with six tries scored, an emphatic result for Leicester. Peter Betham and Telusa Veainu have been giving defenders a lot of trouble and with Manu Tuilagi they are always going to have a chance.
This current Wasps side are a mirror image of the English national team. Just like Exeter they show what the national team are all about. Power up front, followed by the technical, quality passing in the backs. Henry Slade and Elliot Daly have been fantastic; they are both well gifted players who can control the tempo of the game. In terms of going all the way, this Wasps side have an outsiders chance. Third in the Premiership table they undoubtedly have the talent and ability to become European champions, but perhaps lack some of the stardust, which Saracens and Leicester have.
Wasps are a team which like to push high into a defensive line, this was clearly visible against Exeter and it could be their eventual downfall. They can be punished with a kick over the top, especially against quicker opposition. This is what could be their undoing in Europe.
Saracens continued their march for rugby domination during their defeat of Northampton, but it was by no means an easy task. The Saints put up a real fight and Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said ‘We just needed to find a way to turn the energy of the game around. Good teams find a way of getting the job done. We were nowhere near our best and the last few weeks in the Premiership were almost too easy for us, in a way.’
Although they were well beaten by title holders Toulon in 2013 24-12, they seem to have developed a game for Europe. They have learnt that the foundations of set pieces, defence and kicking are essential for European rugby. Owen Farrell and Alex Goode have been in great form for them this season and they have included an offloading game to those essentials.
When the basics are done properly, it normally comes down to force in European competition. Which is why I think that Saracens have the best chance of making it to the final and for English rugby fans, hopefully going all the way.