English dominate European Challenge Cup

By Jerome Butcher

This week sees three English sides in the semi-finals of the European Challenge Cup. It appears that English dominance in sport stretches further than just the Champions League.

On Friday 1st May Northampton Saints will host Saracens at Franklin’s Gardens and on Saturday, Bourgoin go head to head with the Worcester Warriors at the Stade Pierre Rajon.

All three English sides had a disappointing end to their Guinness Premiership campaign, finishing 8th and 9th and 11th respectively. They will all be looking to finish the season on a high with the added bonus of potentially earning a Heineken Cup spot for next season by winning the European Challenge Cup.

Neither Northampton nor Saracens – two equally ambitious teams – could muster up a big enough threat in the league to earn an automatic place, whilst Worcester’s primary objective was survival.

Northampton Saints can reassert their presence on the European stage after only their first season back in the Premiership. After being relegated to second-tier of English rugby, National Division One, albeit only for one season, Northampton seem to be gradually returning to the heights of winning the Heineken Cup in 2000.

Sarries on the other hand are yet to win a European competition and will be looking to improve on their semi-final appearance two years ago when they narrowly lost out to Bath 31-30 at Vicarage Road. Northampton and Saracens have never met in the Cup but are both desperate for silverware.

Saints boast Scottish prop Euan Murray who has been named in the British and Irish Lions squad whilst Saracens have England captain Steve Borthwick, overlooked for this year’s Lions squad to South Africa.

Although it is still a trophy to add to the club Honours, the UEFA Cup of rugby Union is snubbed by many clubs as a nothing competition. The lack of opposition has to be highlighted and it is no coincidence both teams remain unbeaten so far.

Northampton have had to contend with the likes of woeful Premiership side Bristol in their group. They put an extraordinary 91 points over the recently relegated team from the South West. They have also had convincing wins over Toulon and Montpellier. They swept aside Irish side Connacht in the quarter-finals.

Meanwhile Saracens dispatched of Italians Viadana and further poor French opposition in the form of Bayonne and bottom of the table (French Top 14) Mont-de-Marsan. They beat Johnny Wilkinson’s Newcastle Falcons convincingly 32-13 to reach the last four.

Worcester and Bourgoin met last year in the group stages of the cup both winning their games against one another at home but this year sees the teams meet in the other semi final. Bourgoin are currently 12th in the French Top 14 with two tough remaining fixtures against Castres and Brive. Although all their focus will be on the Cup they cannot afford to slip up in the league with Dax breathing down their necks.

It is very possible and very likely that in three weeks time another all-English final will take place on the European stage. The dominance of English club rugby however is simply not reflected on the national stage. Only eight English players have been selected for the 37-man squad for this summer’s tour to South Africa next month.

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