Fraser Brown: Glasgow Warriors could benefit from European semi-finals - it's great to see Scots on the big stage

Leinster players look dejected after their defeat by La Rochelle in the 2023 Champions Cup final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)Leinster players look dejected after their defeat by La Rochelle in the 2023 Champions Cup final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Leinster players look dejected after their defeat by La Rochelle in the 2023 Champions Cup final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Irish side are prioritising Champions Cup over URC

The four semi-finalists in the Investec Champions Cup offer a spread of contrasting strengths and there are a couple of surprise clubs involved which freshens things up nicely.

Northampton have been brilliant in the Premiership this season but no one other than perhaps Nostradamus could have predicted that there would have been two English semi-finalists in the Champions Cup this year, let alone that those two would have been Harlequins and Saints.

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Northampton go to Croke Park on Saturday to face Leinster and I think this is going to be a great game. We hear all the time about how strong the Premiership is, well we’re about to find out because I can’t think of a harder place to go in world rugby from a club perspective than Dublin in front of an 82,000 capacity crowd.

It’s an incredible attendance for a club game and it’s going to be fascinating.

It’s Northampton’s first involvement in the last four of the Champions Cup for 13 years so it’s a big occasion for them. For Leinster, coming off the back of two disappointing losses in South Africa in the URC, defeat would be unthinkable.

They put out a much-changed team full of youth against the Lions and the Stormers, giving much of their star-studded squad a few weeks of recovery, but if you’re going to rest your top players for two weeks it puts a lot of pressure on them to then go out and perform this weekend.

I saw Robin McBryde, the Leinster assistant coach, speaking this week and he was suggesting that some of the players weren’t too interested in the run of the mill matches and just want to play in the big games. I kind of get that. It can be the same in Test matches, sometimes. There are players that you watch week in, week out in league games and think, ‘yeah, he’s a decent player’ then when they play Test matches they’re just a completely different animal.

So I understand that mentality and it’s hard to argue with it given the success of Leinster, Munster and Ireland over the last few years but it does put a lot of pressure on those frontline players. And Northampton will go out there with nothing to lose - they are playing away from home against arguably the best team in Europe.

Northampton are a dangerous team. They’ve got a great kicking game from deep. They won’t play anywhere near their own tryline but if you kick loosely against them they can tear you to pieces in two or three phases.

It’s going to be fascinating. Leinster have lost the last two Champions Cup finals and the pressure on them to win it this year is immense. European failure three years in a row would be a disaster. They will be favourites but Northampton have a chance. Their lineout is good and they have players who create from everywhere. The big question will be around their ability to handle the occasion.

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Leinster are a machine. They’ve been to this stage so many times. But what we saw last year is that they coughed up a couple of big losses as they rotated players in and out. They thought they could put out a second string in the league and still get over the line but they ended up being beaten by some good teams in the URC and then not getting the job done in Europe either, losing to La Rochelle in the final.

Northampton will be thinking that if they can play their game and put Leinster under pressure, they will get opportunities. Leinster haven't quite been at the same level this season as previous years, and those players have played a lot of rugby when you factor in the World Cup and Six Nations.

A big test for Saints will be whether they can handle Leinster’s speed around the breakdown. Jamison Gibson-Park is front and centre of the conversation for best player in the world at the moment alongside another scrum-half, Antoine Dupont. The games in which Leinster and Ireland have struggled this year have seen Gibson-Park come to the fore, getting them going again and giving them momentum, so it will be interesting to see if Northampton can stop him having a big influence.

The history behind Croke Park is important and probably more pertinent in an international fixture but there is the obvious historical background of Ireland versus England.

It will be a wonderful spectacle. To have 82,000 at a club match is incredible, particularly when we seem to be talking regularly about rugby’s difficult financial landscape. It shows there is the appetite to watch top quality club games in the northern hemisphere.

Leinster obviously want to win the URC as well but it’s clearly not their main focus. Europe is their priority. The team they sent to South Africa to play the Lions and the Stormers was not even a second-string team, it was almost third-string.

Leinster could have gone to South Africa and won both of those games but they’ve now given up top spot in the URC to Glasgow. They’ll have the confidence that they can win their last three games, against the Ospreys and then Ulster and Connacht, and get back to the summit but clearly their priority is the Champions Cup. Having lost the last two finals to La Rochelle they are desperate to be kings of Europe again.

From a Glasgow point of view, that’s good. They’ve got two huge games in South Africa over the next two weekends and they need to pick up points against the Bulls and Lions ahead of their final league match with Zebre at Scotstoun.

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If Leinster are focused on their European run it can only benefit Glasgow and I think that will be the case regardless of the result on Saturday at Croke Park. If Leinster win, they’ve got to keep managing the squad in the lead up to the Champions Cup final on May 25. If they lose, it could take away a lot of their impetus given that Europe was such a focus for them.

From a Scottish point of view, Rory Hutchinson, Elliot Millar-Mils and Robbie Smith are at Northampton. I’m not sure if Robbie will play but Hutch has been part of that impressive backline at Saints this season. He’s a very talented centre and it’s nice to see Scottish representatives in the top games in Europe. Obviously it would be nicer to see a Scottish team there but seeing Scottish players in these squads is great and it’s pleasing to see Blair Kinghorn involved in the other semi-final, for Toulouse against Harlequins on Sunday.

Blair is an immensely talented player. He’s so natural - a very powerful guy who’s quick, with a great passing range and his style suits Toulouse. It’s almost like structure within unstructured play. The way they attack can seem quite casual because it’s free-flowing and instinctive and it’s perfect for Blair.

It’s one of the reasons they went after him, because he suits that style of play, and how good is it to see one of Scotland’s top internationals playing for one of the best clubs in the world in a European semi-final? It’s brilliant for Blair and it should be a great game.

Harlequins are a risk averse team and they’ll look to kick a lot. A lot of their play comes off turnover ball, counterattack and broken field running. But they are playing against the best counter-attacking team in the world so if they want to kick the ball to Toulouse it could be really open.

I don’t think anyone expected Harlequins to go over to France and beat Bordeaux in the quarter-finals and it was a brilliant effort by them. They were so strong up front, their maul was particularly powerful and they are dangerous on the counter-attack. Everything revolves around Marcus Smith, he is their talisman and not dissimilar to Finn Russell in that respect. The Toulouse back row will be gunning for him on Sunday, and trying to slow down the speed of the ball at the breakdown.

It’s the Challenge Cup semi-finals as well this weekend, with the Sharks playing Clermont and Gloucester taking on Benetton, and an interesting subplot is developing around the impact that could have on Edinburgh.

As things stand, the top eight finishers in the URC will qualify for next season’s Champions Cup. But winning the Challenge Cup also qualifies you and if either Sharks or Benetton lift the trophy and finish the URC season outside of the top eight then only the top seven from the URC would join them in the Champions Cup. Whoever finishes in eighth place would miss out.

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When you consider how tight the league is around the play-off places, with only six points separating fifth and 11th, losing an extra place could be huge.

From an Edinburgh point of view, their lack of bonus points could really come back to bite them. They’ve won 10 of their 15 games in the URC but have only three bonus points which is the lowest number in the league. But it’s still in their hands: they’ve got home games against Zebre and Munster up next and if they win them they put themselves in a brilliant position going into the final match against Benetton in Italy which is a tough place to go.



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