Benetton a bright light in Italian rugby
While Italy’s national team had a typically disappointing year in the Six Nations, again failing to pick up a win, Benetton had the most successful season for an Italian club side ever. The men from Treviso came third in Conference B in the Pro14, earning a place in the playoffs and qualifying for next year’s Champions Cup.
Benetton were narrowly beaten by Munster at Thomond Park in the quarter final but can take lots of positives from that performance and their season as a whole. Let’s hope that they continue to carry their good form into next season and continue flying the flag for Italy in club rugby.
Leinster still in the hunt for the double-double
Leinster became the first side from outside of England and France to complete a domestic and European double and are on track to accomplish that feat again. While their league form has been poor in recent times, they’ve still managed to reach the Champions Cup Final and have a home semi-final in the Pro14 against Munster.
Saracens are a formidable foe for Leinster to overcome in Saturday’s final in Newcastle but will be buoyed on knowing that they have never lost in a European final and have also never lost to Saracens. They’ll to travel to Glasgow should they make the Pro14 Final and while they could come up against Glasgow themselves, they’d be fancied to win a second league title on the trot.
More semi-final heartbreak for Munster
Another year, another loss in a semi-final for Munster. That’s seven semi-final losses in a row in the Champions Cup for Munster and fans would be forgiven for thinking that Munster are cursed. However, there was nothing supernatural about this year’s clash against Saracens where they were well beaten by a better side.
They’re still in the hunt for a first league title since 2011 but after an unconvincing performance against Benetton in the quarter final not too many would be confident in seeing Munster lift the Pro14 trophy. They have had some great performances this season, against Leinster in Thomond and Gloucester away, and they’ll need to play to that standard if they want to win the title.
Are Ulster getting back to their best?
After a few lacklustre years Ulster seem to finally be getting them back to the form that some them make the Heineken Cup and Pro12 finals earlier on this decade. They were narrowly beaten by reigning champions Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter final and are through to the Pro14 semi-final after seeing off Connacht.
Consistent performances from the likes of John Cooney and Marcell Coetzee have seen them through their best season in a number of years. While Ulster haven’t won any silverware since winning a maiden Celtic League title in 2006, with it being departing captain Rory Best’s final year at the club they could be motivated enough to get their hands on another trophy.
Return of the French giants
It’s been a while since Toulouse have been true contenders in Europe or domestically, but they are certainly back on the big stage. A breath-taking win over Leinster in October saw the French club return to something resembling the Toulouse sides of old.
While the European hopes were ended by Leinster comprehensively last month, they are still favourites to claim a first Top 14 title since 2012. With young stars like Antoine Dupont and Cheslin Kolbe, there’s no reason Toulouse can’t continue to be a force in Europe in the years to come.
Saracens set to add more silverware to their trophy cabinet
The English champions are also in contention to secure a European and domestic double and they may be slightly better placed than Leinster to do just that. The North Londoners have been in terrific form this season, winning all eight of their Champions Cup matches this year comfortably.
Saracens will be looking to make it three Champions Cup titles in four years and a fourth English title in five years. If they do manage the double this year, it would be hard to argue against them being one of the best European club sides of all time.
Clermont’s return to form
Last season was the season from hell for Clermont, with star players such as Camille Lopez, Aliverati Raka and Damien Penaud injured for large parts of the season, among many others. The injuries took their toll and saw Clermont finish ninth in the Top 14, failing to qualify for the Champions Cup.
The Yellow Army are back with a bang however and are currently placed second in the Top 14, not to mention securing their place in the Challenge Cup Final. They’ll be back in the top tier of European rugby next season and will be title challengers if they continue their impressive form.
Exeter yet again unable to convert domestic form to European success
Exeter Chiefs have been arguably one of the top teams in Europe over the last five years or so, yet have only managed one appearance in the Champions Cup quarter finals in that period of time.
They’ve been in flying form domestically again this season, currently on top with a game to go, but only managed two wins from six in the Champions Cup pool stages. With a second English title on the cards for the Chiefs, making their mark in Europe should be what’s next on the agenda.
Welsh regions fortunes wildly different to the national side’s
Wales have blazed a trail through international rugby in recent times, winning 14 games on the bounce. Their Welsh regions however failed to reach the knockout stages in the Pro14, Challenge Cup and Champions Cup.
The difference in fortunes is particularly peculiar as the vast majority of the national squad play their club rugby in Wales. Scarlets were particularly disappointing this year as the previous two seasons saw them claim the league title and make it to the semi-finals in Europe.
Scottish clubs improving year on year
Unlike their Welsh counterparts the performances of Glasgow and Edinburgh has far exceeded what Scotland achieved on the international stage. Both Scottish clubs made the knockout stages in the Champions Cup, and while both were beaten in the quarter finals, they can take plenty of positives from getting that far on Europe’s main stage.
Glasgow are still in with a very good chance of winning their second Pro14 title with a home semi-final lined up against Ulster. The final will take place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park and you can be sure there would be nothing the Warriors would love more than winning a title in front of their home fans.
Written by Eoin Hart