THE Heineken Cup quarter-finals bring the excitement back to the fore this weekend, but before we get on to that I want to take a minute to say how pleasing it is to see Thom Evans back on his feet and beginning to love life again.
Thom has been a good friend for some years now and having come through a scary on-field injury myself in 1997 that left me thankful to Dr James Robson for my life, it was quite shocking to see James having to do the same again, and for someone I know well. Thom's injury and the incredible treatment he received has been quite under-played in my opinion, but there is little doubt that as serious as Thom's injury was it could have been more serious had it not been for the skills of James and the medics at the game and in the hospital, people that rarely receive the credit they are due.
Many people will remember how James helped me during the British and Irish Lions tour in 1997, because it became a part of the documentary film Living with Lions, and I have no hesitation in repeating, with the information we got after that injury, that he saved my life. And I freely admit that when I saw Thom go down in the Millennium Stadium and be stretchered off, and then heard how serious it was, I winced about this great game of ours and what it can do.
Myself and my wife went to visit Thom and his mum and brother in Glasgow a few weeks ago, and we had a good afternoon with them and I even had a game of pool against him. It is very much one step at a time for Thom right now, albeit one step in Glasgow, one in New York – good work if you can get it – and he's right not to be making decisions about his rugby future until he knows what he wants, but what pleased me was that his natural optimism for life was there again.
I don't watch the 1997 Lions video often and he won't watch that tackle in Wales much I reckon, but he's looking ahead again and that little step should not be underestimated when you've gone through something like that. I have three kids, two boys, my dad played for England, and so the Greenwood name carries a certain element of expectation. But these injuries do make you think about rugby. If Archie and Rocco say they want to play tennis and golf and you see good friends like Thom go through that, I say yes, tennis and golf it is. I won't push them one way or the other. I'd encourage them to play everything, and find what it is they like and if it is rugby they want to play then we go into it with eyes wide open, knowing the risks. But it is a brutal sport now; there's no getting away from it. I've only been retired a few years but the difference in size of the players now is incredible.
I have to be honest and say that I thank the Lord I was born in the 1970s and stopped playing when I did.
And then, you turn to this weekend, and what do we expect? We expect brutal rugby, massive collisions, blood and players being carried from the field. That is the reality of what happens when rugby gets to this stage of the season. But we also hope for some engrossing rugby.
There has been a minor shift in emphasis in what referees are doing at the breakdown and we even saw Saracens running ball out of their 22 against Gloucester, which isn't the Sarries of recent seasons, but however much you alter laws or interpretations, World Cup finals will always be 15-12 or 12-9. Why? Because you become possessed by the devil when you play in the top games; ordinary blokes run the extra yard, make the extra tackle, and games are so intense and tight it's not real.
Sure, we love to watch the Super 14, but if you want scores of 38-35 and 'Twenty-Twenty' rugby, then the Heineken Cup knockout stages is not the place you want to be. But if you're a big fan of 'Rollerball', then buy a ticket.
Harlequins beat Leinster 6-5 last year and, ignoring the bloodgate affair for a minute, that was one of the great quarter-finals in the Heineken Cup. Now, to say with a game that ended with a football score you'd think was ridiculous, but it's true. The Super 14 must be great to play in, but ask Rocky Elsom what he thought of the Heineken Cup and he'll say, 'Crikey, I didn't see that coming!'.
We have some cracking games this weekend, from tonight's starter in Dublin, which is a really tough one to call. I've always been a lover of all things French and I'm a massive Clermont fan, and I feel guys like Brock James and Mario Ledesma deserve success because of their incredible contribution to European and French rugby. Munster haven't lost at Thomond Park at this stage but they will one day and I've had a good chat with the Northampton boys this week and they are really looking forward to being the ones to do it. It is hard to bet against Paul O'Connell's boys at home though.
The Ospreys are due a good run, but you have Biarritz no longer wasting their great backs talent, and recognising they can do more than just try to bore their way over the line and I'm backing them to win. Stade Francais have had a difficult season, and I expect Toulouse to come through on Sunday because this is where they come alive – amid the excitement of cut-throat knockout pressure.
• Will Greenwood is a Heineken ambassador. Heineken are proud to be celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Heineken Cup, the best club rugby competition in the world. www.heinekenrugby.co.uk