English clubs march on in Europe
April 7, 2008
London Irish and Saracens both reached their first ever Heineken Cup semi final as English teams claimed both home ties in Europe's premier cup competition.
English teams have had both home semi-finalists only once before and that was last season when Leicester Tigers and London Wasps exploited home advantage to reach the Heineken Cup Final.
French club giants Toulouse will play London Irish at Twickenham on Saturday 26th April and Irish region Munster will play Saracens at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry on Sunday 27th April.
Lying sixth and eighth respectively in the Guinness Premiership, the progression of the Men in Black and the Exiles made a mockery of their league positions and allowed another group of talented young English players to be exposed to the competitive furnace of Heineken Cup rugby.
London Irish lock Nick Kennedy was man of the match for many on Saturday and will surely have impressed those with knowledge of second row play to reinforce his claims for a place on England's tour to New Zealand. Delon Armitage, Shane Geraghty, Topsy Ojo and David Paice can also only have enhanced their cases.
After their match, Saracens' coach Alan Gaffney again questioned the lack of England recognition for members of his squad. Richard Haughton, who was the pool stages' top scorer, was possibly the most eye-catching and was a constant threat whether from wing or his later position of full back, having moved there after an injury to Springbok Brent Russell. Nick Lloyd, Adam Powell and Ben Skirving also showed up particularly well.
Victories for Bath Rugby, Newcastle Falcons, Sale Sharks and Worcester Warriors in the European Challenge Cup means English teams will host the semi finals of both the Heineken and European Challenge Cups for the first time ever. It is also only the second time all four Challenge Cup semi finalists have come from England, the only other time being in season 2005/6.
Following their win over Top 14 side Montpelier, Worcester Warriors have now only lost once in their last five matches under Mike Ruddock and the former Wales coach will pit his blend of overseas stars and young domestic talent against the established stars of Newcastle Falcons in an effort to reach the final. A place in the Heineken Cup for next season is on offer to the winners.
Premier Rugby's Chief Executive Mark McCafferty added, "It was another great weekend for the Guinness Premiership clubs and many congratulations in particular to London Irish and Saracens. Their success is in part a reflection of the strength of the Premiership. It's great for the competition to have fresh faces in the final four and it gives another group of our emerging English players an experience of the cauldron that is European Cup rugby.
Now the intensity will go up another notch with Munster and Toulouse on the horizon and for our supporters we have a feast of European rugby to look forward to in three weeks with the semi finals all taking place in England."