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English national teams may not be prospering at present, but at club level it is a different matter. The Champions League football trio of semi-finalists will be preceded into battle this weekend by a comparably dominant English group in the Heineken European Cup.
Llanelli, who visit Leicester at the Walkers Stadium on Saturday, are the sole exception to English rule, with Northampton playing Wasps in the second semi-final at Coventry’s Ricoh Stadium on Sunday.
This might seem surprising given the flak the Guinness Premiership received for its alleged limitations last autumn, a critique stimulated by national team failings and apparently substantiated when England’s representatives started slowly in the Heineken.
One of the few players to have appeared in all three of the domestic championships that feed the Heineken – the Premiership, France’s Top 14 and the Magners Celtic – is former Scottish back Gregor Townsend. He is surprised that England have three teams in the last four, but not because he agrees with the critics.
“The surprise for me is that France and Ireland are not represented. You’d always expect France to get at least one team into the last four, and I expected Leinster to do better this year,” he says.
But as a former Northampton player, he is well aware of the English championship’s strengths. “It is unrelentingly demanding, week-in and week-out. You don’t get the breaks we get in the Magners League for the Six Nations. Almost every team has a big pack, but that doesn’t mean that the rugby played is as limited as some people suggest.
“Gloucester and Leicester in particular have played with a lot of variety and you’ve had the emergence of players like Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb and Toby Flood. I can’t ever remember England having three young attacking outside-halves at the same time before.”
He admires Wasps’ ability to peak for big matches – “an excellent trick if you can learn it” – and the depth of squad at Leicester. “They seem to be able to put out two teams of real quality, which means they’re much less vulnerable to injuries.”
While Townsend was more surprised to see Northampton progress, that is hardly disrespectful to his old club. Their coach Paul Grayson has readily admitted his own surprise. But Townsend points out that “even though they’re struggling in the league, they have quality players and real finishing power outside with Sean Lamont and Ben Cohen”.
Their success was the most spectacular French failure, as champions Biarritz fell to a team they had beaten twice in the pool stages.
Townsend says of Biarritz: “They’re not playing as well this season and are struggling to make the top four. Neither they nor Stade Français play a traditionally French style but a containing game which may serve them over the long run of their championship, but isn’t so effective in the one-offs where you have to take a few more risks.”
Toulouse, always prepared to take a risk, appear to be in transition while Perpignan and Agen slumped after good starts.
Townsend is not assuming an all-English final though. Llanelli have impressed him.
“I was disappointed with the Magners League last season, but this year has been much better,” he says. “The Welsh regions, Ospreys as well as Llanelli, seem to be settling down and producing good rugby. Llanelli are a very good side. They’ve got power and talent. They remind me of Leinster – and like them they’ve been good enough to go to Toulouse and win.”
Leicester are tough opponents on any ground, as Llanelli’s neighbours Ospreys discovered in last week’s epic EDF Energy Cup final. But after two heartbreaking Heineken semi-final defeats – against Northampton in 2000 and Leicester two years later – might this be third time lucky for the Scarlets?