Well, with the 6 Nations over, the focus now returns to club rugby, with the quarter-finals taking place this weekend, in both the Amlin and Heineken European championships, with Leinster, Munster and Ulster all featuring.
LEINSTER have just beaten Wasps, 48-28, to advance to the semi-finals of the Amlin. It was a great performance by Leinster, who had lost a close Rabo game to Ulster last weekend.
Leinster’s star was Ian Madigan, who had a great game, and scored a try, and kicked 9 goals. He also prevented a few Wasps’ tries. Sean O’Brien also was dominant, setting up Rob Kearney’s try.
Also scoring were Mike Ross, Gordon D’Arcy, and Isa Nacewa. It wasn’t all great though, as Leinster’s defence was poor at times, and they couldn’t contain either of Wasps’ wings, Varndell or Wade, who both scored twice.
Varndell had a great game, and was un-containable at times. Wasps’ former coach, Warrant Gatland, was in attendance, and should have been impressed by some of the performances in the match, and will influence him when he picks his Lions’ squad.
Leinster will have a home semi-final against Biarritz, on April 27th. Biarritz beat Gloucester, 41-31, in another cracking match. Biarritz have a great team, with Dimitri Yachvilli their main threat at 9.
They also have Imanol Harinorduqouy (one of the best number 8’s in the world), and centres, Traille and Baby. Leinster should have Brian O’Driscoll back in time for the semi-final. He was given a 3-week ban for stamping in the Ireland v Italy game.
ULSTER face Saracens, today (Saturday, 6th April) at Twickenham at 6.30, in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. The winner will face either Clermont or Montpellier ( who play on Saturday at 3.40) in the semi-final.
This will be a very tough game for Ulster. Saracens are on a real role at the moment. They’re at the top of the English Premiership, 4 points ahead of their nearest rivals, and they’ve been unbeaten at home for nearly a year.
Saracens also have a great team, with Alex Goode at full-back, Brad Barritt at centre, David Strettle on the wing and Owen Farrell at out-half (all who’ve been talked about as possible Lions tourists, especially Farrell). They also have a powerful pack.
Their bench is impressive as well, with former South African World Cup-winning captain, John Smit. And England Lion, Charlie Hodgson. Saracens start the match as favourites.
Ulster have a great team too, though. Paddy Jackson did well in the 6 Nations, after a shaky start; Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy have been stars. Ruan Pienarr is one of the best scrum-halves in the world, and Andrew Trimble is returning to form.
They also have a strong pack, with flankers Chris Henry and Ian Henderson featuring in the 6 Nations. Rory Best also has a Lions place to play for. It’s great to see Tommy Bowe return, after missing the 6 Nations through injury. He starts on the bench.
Ulster did well to beat Leinster last week, but their form has dipped recently, having lost the Rabo top spot to Glasgow. They’ll need to reclaim their form, and be at their best to beat Saracens.
MUNSTER face Harlequins at 2 o’clock on Sunday, at ‘Quins’ home, and they have an even tougher task (then Ulster do) ahead of them. Harlequins are 3rd in the English Premiership, and were one of the dominant teams in the Heineken pool stages.
They have a great side, coached by Conor O’Shea, including England stars Chris Robshaw and Danny Care. Though faltering in recent weeks, they’ve been one of the form teams in Europe this season.
Munster, on the other hand, have had a pretty poor season. They barely managed to qualify for the Heineken quarters, and are 6th in the Rabo table, 20 points behind Rabo leaders Glasgow.
Their form hasn’t been great this season, and they look far removed from the team that dominated European rugby 5 years ago. They’ve changed tactics in recent years, moving away from a 10 man style of rugby, and the change hasn’t been successful.
They still have a great team, and will be boosted by the welcome return of captain, Paul O’Connell, who plays his biggest match since returning from injury. He’ll need to harness his big match temperament/experience if Munster are to have a chance of winning.
In contrast, Ronan O’Gara has had a poor season, and will need to reawaken the star of old. If Munster manage to beat Harlequins, they will face either Toulon or Leicester in the semi-final, taking place over the weekend of 26/7/8th of April.
Earlier in the week, Declan Kidney was effectively sacked by the IRFU, from his job as Ireland coach. Kidney had been with the team since 2008, winning the Grand Slam in 2009, but Ireland’s form had dipped drastically since then.
Les Kiss (who was Kidney’s assistant) will take over during Ireland’s summer tour of America, where they play USA and Canada. The IRFU are currently hunting for a new coach, with no Irish-born candidates in the running.
Leinster’s Joel Schmidt, and Australian Ewen McKenzie are the current front-runners for the job. Neither have experience with international rugby. Schmidt, who’s from New Zealand, has had a great run with Leinster, winning 2 Heineken Cups.
McKenzie played prop for Australia, and won a World Cup medal with them in 1991. He later coached the Queensland Reds to the Super Rugby title in 2011, after the Reds had been in a poor state.
He’s also coached the New South Wales Waratahs, and Stade Francais, and been an assistant coach to Australia. He’s been a very successful coach, one drawback being that he’s fortunately unknown with the Irish players.