It’s no secret that France has been grabbing the headlines in international rugby: Six Nations champions, hosts of the next World Cup and home to the world player of the year Antoine Dupont.
But fans the continent over are currently enjoying a golden era of French club rugby, too, with 19 of the possible 40 Champions and Challenge Cup places across the last five years held by Top14 teams.
Next weekend’s European top flight semi-finals will see Toulouse, Racing 92 and La Rochelle all feature – the only non-French club being competition favourites Leinster.
In the Challenge Cup, Toulon and Lyon will host English duo Saracens and Wasps respectively to bring the total number of French sides in the four semis to five.
But it’s also nothing new to see just French, Irish and English sides feature at this stage in Europe.
Not since 2018 has a side from beyond one of these countries featured in a final four fixture – when Scarlets and Cardiff both made an appearance.
It therefore shows where the depth of rugby and hotbeds of investment lies, and the weekend’s action reminded us of the treasure that is a European quarter-final weekend.
France on the spot
Over in Dublin on Saturday, reigning champions Toulouse beat Munster after the province were forced to host the match in the capital due to an Ed Sheeran concert at their home ground, Thomond Park.
Level at 24-24 at full time, and scoreless in extra time, the match went to a rarely seen penalty shootout. Six place kicks from three positions with three different kickers.
Toulouse were flawless and dampened the once jubilant crowd of 40,000, winning 4-2.
Their reward? Leinster next Saturday. The Dublin-based side will host Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium – the second time in as many weeks Toulouse will have played there – for a place in the Marseille final.
Leinster toppled Leicester 14-23 in the East Midlands in a clash which saw how the United Rugby Championship leaders are able to race to a lead and hold on in style.
In a hostile Welford Road it was former England coach Stuart Lancaster’s men who claimed victory.
In the other half of the draw, whose four sides haven’t yet seen a trophy in the top flight competition, it was La Rochelle who set the pace.
Last year’s defeated finalists, now under Irish great Ronan O’Gara, fended off a late Montpellier fightback to book themselves a place in Sunday’s semi-final with a 31-19 win.
Their mix of French talent and overseas stardust has seen the Atlantic coast club find the perfect balance of skill and power.
They’ll come up against fellow Top14 club Racing in Lens next week – another casualty of a concert booking. Racing, with Scottish maestro Finn Russell pulling the strings, overcame a stubborn Sale Sharks 41-22 side in Paris yesterday afternoon to cement their spot in the semis – the score unreflective of the match.
So the Champions Cup has offered up a platter of brilliant rugby this weekend, topped with a once-in-a-decade penalty shootout.
But in France, where rugby is thriving at all levels, European dominance will continue to be on the mind for yet another year.
Tier two showdown
As for the Challenge Cup, recently promoted Saracens remain favourites after they thrashed Gloucester 44-15 on Friday at Kingsholm.
They’ve earned themselves a trip to Toulon, after the French side edged London Irish 19-18, despite one of the best 100m tries you’ll ever see from Irish replacement Henry Arundell.
Irish raced to a 10-point lead but in the hostile Stade Felix Mayol you cannot give the home side any respite.
Alas the away side did just that and Toulon were able to battle back and into the semi-finals.
Lyon will host the other semi-final after beating Glasgow 35-27 late on Saturday night.
Georgian 19-year-old Davit Niniashvili scored a brace for the hosts to put the tie to bed.
Their opponents? Wasps. The Premiership outfit coped well with a hectic final 10 minutes in Edinburgh to beat their Scottish hosts 34-30.
Both the Champions and Challenge Cup finals will be held in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on the final weekend of the month.