Much of the talk ahead of the European quarter-finals has been about front row red tape, which isn’t a good look for the game, and neither Rob Baxter nor EPCR have covered themselves in glory.
I know Chris Boyd and he’s a straight-up, honest guy and to accuse him of “mind games” was a bit of an ill-judged remark from Baxter. Saints had one fit loosehead, who has recently converted from number eight and made his Premiership debut off the bench last weekend.
There’s clearly a health and safety issue and I don’t think Saints were trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. It’s also not as if they’ve brought in a superstar. They’ve signed up a 22-year-old in Alex Seville who has never started a Premiership game.
Even with that addition you fear for Northampton’s scrum but at least the game should be able to go ahead safely. The game has changed so much in recent years and anyone saying all props should be able to play on both sides of the scrum is out of touch with modern rugby.
All of this verbal sparring could have been avoided, though, if EPCR had acted more quickly. Rules are rules but there has to be some sort of flexibility built in for this eventuality and we knew this was going to be an issue on Sunday, yet it took until Thursday for it to be sorted.
It’s also not the first time it’s been raised as Newcastle had a similar problem in the Champions Cup a couple of years ago. Thankfully, common sense has prevailed and a permanent change has been made to the tournament rules but it shouldn’t have taken so long.
On the pitch, Exeter shouldn’t have any problem despatching Saints even without those front row issues and they’ll be rubbing their hands looking at their side of the draw. I expect Toulouse to have too much for Ulster and would back Chiefs to beat them at home and make the final.
The other side of the draw is tougher to call and all eyes will be on Dublin for the rematch of last year’s final. It’s a shame we won’t get to see Lions team-mates Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell face off but it’s actually the bench strength rather than the absence of Farrell that I think swings it in Leinster’s favour.
As many as 10 of Saracens’ starting XV played in last year’s final and the absence of a crowd at the Aviva Stadium will definitely play into their hands but the bench is where you can really see what has happened to them since the salary cap scandal.
I think Saracens will revert to type a bit and test Leinster with the kicking game, especially with Richard Wigglesworth’s box kicking and experience at scrum half, but I expect Leinster to just have too much in the end and take their unbeaten run to 26 games.
Statistically, there’s usually one away win out of a set of four Champions Cup quarter-finals, though, and I think Racing will be the ones to come up with it this year away at Clermont.
They won there at this stage in the competition a couple of years ago and, although there will be a few fans at the Stade Marcel Michelin, the absence of a big crowd makes such a difference there.
Racing are flying at the moment as well with Finn Russell looking like an absolute superstar, whereas Clermont have only just edged past a 13-man Toulouse at home and lost away at Bayonne since the new Top 14 season began.
Leinster v Racing and Exeter v Toulouse would be a hell of a prospect and it may have been a long time coming but we won’t have long to wait with the semi-finals coming next weekend. It’s been good to have rugby back and it’s even better to have some top European rugby back.
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