As we head towards the business end of an enthralling domestic season, all eyes turn to the European club semi-finals this weekend, where Scarlets and Cardiff Blues will be flying the flag for Wales.
The four Welsh regions have a troubled history in the European competitions. Indeed, since the regions were formed in 2003, only The Blues have lifted silverware, tasting success on French soil against Toulon back in 2010. The hosts had the likes of Johnny Wilkinson and Sonny Bill Williams in their ranks at the time, while a vintage Blues team included Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, Ben Blair, Casey Laulala, and of course the outstanding Martin Williams.
Saturday will see the Blues face-off against Pau in a European Challenge Cup semi-final at the Arms Park. I’ve been very impressed with the Blues’ performances in Europe this season, and having won nine of their last ten games in all competitions, they have confidence and momentum going into this encounter. The quarter-final against Edinburgh at Murrayfield was a massive scalp, with the Scottish outfit themselves on an impressive run of form. I’m backing the Blues to make the final in Bilbao, especially looking at their form in this competition over the year, which has already included doubles over French big-hitters Toulouse and Lyon.
Meanwhile, buoyed by their excellent quarter-final win over La Rochelle at a fervent Parc-y-Scarlets, the current Pro 14 Champions must now travel to Dubiln to face the mighty Leinster for a coveted place in the European Champions Cup Final.
The Scarlets may be in unfamiliar territory, their last European semi-final coming in the 2006-07 campaign, but they are playing some majestic rugby at the moment. Having formed the backbone and provided the blueprint for a rejuvenated Wales team in this year’s Six Nations, the Scarlets continue to play a fast, expansive, attractive brand of rugby that few teams can handle at present. They have threats right across the park, and play with real intensity. Leinster in Dublin will be admittedly be a huge challenge, but the key here is the Scarlets have done it before, having seen off both Leinster and Munster in the knock-out stages of the old Pro 12 tournament to be crowned Champions.
Here’s hoping the Blues and Scarlets will make it a Welsh double this weekend.