Super Rugby, the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 may be considered the most popular club rugby competitions in the world, but if you want to see the pinnacle of club rugby, watch the Irish teams in action in the Champions Cup semi-finals this weekend.
Leinster and Munster go into the last-four ties with efficient game plans and squads purring with confidence – with the possibility of an all-Irish Champions Cup final a thrilling prospect for rugby fans.
Standing in the way of Munster are Top 14 giants Racing 92 – a team who Johann van Graan’s side met twice in the pool stages, with the Reds prevailing 14-7 in October and falling short by four points (34-30) in the reverse fixture in Paris in January.
For Leinster – the most in-form team in the competition this season – a meeting with Welsh side Scarlets separates them from a first final since 2012.
Two tense matches await, but if the provinces can prevail then Irish rugby will get the dream final in Bilbao on May 12, which will be just a second-ever all-Irish final – Leinster’s comprehensive 42-14 win over Ulster in 2012 the other one.
It’s fair to say the Munster-Leinster rivalry has declined in recent years, with the Blues winning 16 out of the last 22 fixtures, but nothing would bring it roaring back into the public interest than a Champions Cup final between the two.
It’s no surprise to see Leinster at this stage of the competition after an impressive year, but Munster – after a mixed campaign – have arrived in the last four following a stunning victory over three-time champions Toulon in the last round.
The back-to-back wins over the Cheetahs and Southern Kings in South Africa will surely boost morale, with the warm weather training, bonding and victories setting them up nicely for the trip to the south of France.
With Conor Murray playing the best rugby of his career and Ian Keatley in sparkling form of late, the men from Limerick will be a tour de force when they step out for the semi-final.
This Munster side may not have that same European experience when you think to Munster teams of old, but they are a vastly improved side with tactical prowess and a pack that have clear ideas of what they need to do with quality ball from line-out and scrum time.
With a maturing squad and Six Nations Grand Slam winners at their disposal, this match is set up to be a thriller.
In the other semi-final, Leinster are home to Scarlets with Leo Cullen’s side clear favourites for the title, having won their six pool games and especially after a convincing win over reigning champions Saracens in the quarter-finals.
The men from Dublin have been playing rugby at a frightening pace, with accurate kicking, a strong scrum and a superb passing and offloading game at the forefront of their game plan.
In Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and Dan Leavy, Leinster possess four players who are also in the form of their lives and who will be integral to how the Blues perform at the Aviva Stadium.
It will be a difficult test for Scarlets but head coach Wayne Pivac has proven himself to be a master tactician, although he needs to tighten his defensive maul before the trip to the Irish capital, with two mauls collapsing at critical moments during the quarter-final win over La Rochelle.
If Leinster come out on top against the defending Pro14 champions, they will have a two day break and can relax and watch Munster play on Sunday before preparing for the decider.
But for all the talk of Leinster and Munster dominance, Scarlets and Racing won’t fear anything and this is set up to be the most promising semi-final pairing in recent years.
Scarlets beat Leinster in the Pro14 play-offs last year and there’s no reason why the Welshmen can’t do it again.
For Racing, any team with Carter pulling the strings is a force to be reckoned with, and after a solid win over Clermont in the quarters, they have proved themselves to be battle-hardened.
The club game is continuing to improve, but to see Leinster and Munster in the final would be a serious advertisement for the sport, especially from a tactical and viewing perspective, with both teams knowing each other so well from various confrontations down the years.
For now, the Irish sides must leap the semi-final hurdle this weekend before they can dream further, but an all-Irish final in northern Spain on May 12 would be an intriguing affair.
Rugby Australia said on Tuesday it would not sanction Israel Folau for his comments on homosexuality posted on social media as the Wallabies superstar revealed he was willing to walk away from the sport over his religious beliefs.
The decision came after Folau defended the post late on Monday on www.playersvoice.com.au, a website for sportspeople to air their views, saying he had written them “honestly and from the heart”.
“Rugby Australia will not sanction Israel Folau for his comment posted on a social media platform on April 4,” said a statement from the sport’s governing body.
“Anyone who knows me knows I am not the type to upset people intentionally,” the 29-year-old wrote, adding that suggestions he was bigoted “could not be further from the truth”.
Folau also hit out at Rugby Australia chief Raelene Castle for her comments about him after he was summoned to a meeting with the governing body, which has an inclusion policy to stop discrimination, over his remarks.
Castle had said the star had agreed to “think about” the impact of his posts and had acknowledged his comments could have been made “in a more respectful way”.
“I felt Raelene misrepresented my position and my comments, and did so to appease other people, which is an issue I need to discuss with her and others at Rugby Australia,” he wrote.
Despite Folau’s criticism of Castle, the rugby chief said Tuesday that “we accept Israel’s position” and that the playersvoice post “provided context behind his social media comment”.
Folau also revealed he told Castle he was ready to walk away from his contract immediately “if she felt the situation had become untenable – that I was hurting Rugby Australia, its sponsors and the Australian rugby community to such a degree that things couldn’t be worked through”.
The offer to break the contract, which finishes this year, was not in order that he could return to rugby league, Folau added, amid speculation that several National Rugby League (NRL) clubs were interested in signing him.
“At no stage over the past two weeks have I wanted that to happen,” he added.
“This is not about money or bargaining power or contracts. It’s about what I believe in and never compromising that, because my faith is far more important to me than my career and always will be.”
Rugby Australia have been trying to balance their desire to re-sign Folau with the demands of leading sponsors including national airline Qantas, who made it clear to the governing body that it was not happy with Folau’s posting.
New South Wales Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said he wanted his player to stay in the code, adding that he knew discussions were continuing between Rugby Australia and Folau.
“We want Israel to stay in rugby, he enjoys the game and so our immediate concern is making sure he stays in rugby,” Gibson told reporters on Tuesday. “There hasn’t been a timeframe put on those discussions.”
They may have only just completed their debut season as a fully-fledged club, but Dubai Eagles are already dreaming of creating a legacy for future generations, having just returned from a charity trip to Sri Lanka.
As most teams and players were settling down to enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation after a punishing campaign, a group of Eagles players were taking flight to donate kit and equipment to a school on the west coast of the island, off the south coast of India.
A group of 10 players went altogether for the three-day trip, where they visited pupils at Mahanama College in Panadura, 27km south of the capital Colombo.
Eagles’ Irish fly-half and director of rugby, Sean Carey, said it was a brilliant experience.
“We got in touch with the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union and we asked them to put us in touch with a team close to the UAE, in the south west, somewhere that was affected by the tsunami,” said Carey.
More than 30,000 Sri Lankans were killed on Boxing Day in 2004 when, as a result of an Indian Ocean earthquake, the island was hit by a devastating tsunami, with around 1.5 million more people displaced from their homes.
“They put us in touch with Mahanama College College in Panadura. We landed in the airport and they had a bus waiting for us. We went straight to the school and they were having an assembly. We planned a day of coaching and just talked to the kids.
“We had the first season for the Eagles and we had some kit that was left over. We bought more than we should have so there was quite a lot of stuff.
“We had a lot hanging around downstairs in the store rooms too, around 70 jerseys, 25 balls and other rugby equipment.
“We met with the principal, they even fed us. It was a pretty cool experience. We’d hope to go back there maybe once a year. It’s a big thing of what we want to do as a club.”
Although they mixed business with pleasure, spending their final two days at the beach, the 3,348km trip is something Eagles are determined to follow up on.
The club plans to head back to Mahanama College next season as well as visiting more schools in other Asian countries.
Carey – who formed part of the Ireland squad that played at the Under-19 World Championship when it was staged in Dubai and Sharjah in 2006 – represented the UAE at the Asia Rugby Championship in Malaysia last year.
Twelve years ago the 30-year-old was part of an Irish side containing future British & Irish Lions Cian Healy and Keith Earls that finished fifth in the UAE. And having enjoyed a fairly high-profile career, Carey said he was inspired to give something back after being part of the Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors side that toured Madagascar in 2016.
“I’d done the Mike Ballard thing before, the Conquistadors, so that was in the back of my head when we started Eagles last summer, that we’d do something along those lines, like a tour, and link up with some people in need of help, kit and rugby equipment,” said Carey of the organisation set up by former Abu Dhabi Harlequins player Ballard.
“I wanted to take what Mike has done and do a bit more of it. Me and Conor (Coakley, Eagles captain) had been in Madagascar and got the idea from Mike.
“There’s loads of rugby-mad areas in Asia that need equipment and we wanted to do more in other countries. It’s something we’d like to have as part of our legacy.
“We have other destinations and we’d like to do something like this twice a year. But we want to build something and go to those places again rather than just drop stuff and leave.
“It’s a big part of what we want to do at Eagles. Because we are so lucky here, and have so much in Dubai, so we want to give something back.”