We are really into the sharp end of the rugby season now, as illustrated by a mouth-watering weekend of Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
Today we get under way at 1.30pm when Munster host Toulouse at Thomond Park in what should be an absolute cracker. The question is can Munster maintain their famed home record in what are changing times for the Irish province, taking on a powerhouse French team with quality in every department?
You would have to go with Munster to push through despite the strength of the Toulouse squad, and it is quite a remarkable sequence of wins they have over in Limerick.
It is all built around iconic players like Paul O’Connell, the history they have developed and a similar mentality to the New Zealand All Blacks in terms of passing on the honour of wearing the shirt.
That is precisely the mentality Stuart Lancaster is trying to generate for England right now, really making the players feel like they are part of a great heritage. Your role when you get the shirt is to maintain that level, and it is important for Munster given their traditional isolation on the far west coast of Ireland.
They are very proud and competitive, they have the crowd and the elements behind them and it can be a foreboding place for opposing teams to visit when all these factors are combined in what is now a superbly renovated stadium.
Like all the Irish provinces they have had the advantage of keeping hold of their best players, and importing wisely. They have been able to develop that local identity, whereas Toulouse have had a few slips this season.
The ageing of Toulouse’s squad is one consideration within that, but becomes less of an issue for me when you get to the big knockout games. That experience can count when it matters, and there is no doubt they will be very competitive despite home advantage potentially tipping the balance Munster’s way.
Leicester begin the English charge when they travel to Clermont today. Any game in France is a challenge given the intensity generated there, plus Clermont’s immense physicality and remarkable home record.
The French side are favourites to make the semi-finals, but it will be an interesting confrontation given how highly Leicester pride themselves on winning that forward battle.
It will certainly be a measurement of where they are at in relation to the best the French game has to offer, a fascinating day of quarter-final action coming to a close at 6.30pm when Premiership leaders Saracens travel to Belfast to meet Ulster.
Under the guidance of David Humphreys and Mark Anscombe Ulster have done remarkably well, and really developed into a serious threat at this elite level.
They deserve maximum respect but, having said that, Saracens have shown under Mark McCall that they too have come on significantly.
They will have learnt from last season where they beat Ulster at the quarter-final stage, and they will be fancying their chances of going over there. The form they have shown in the Premiership is enough for me to believe they can do it, but like all of the quarter-finals you could make a good case either way. The one that probably jumps off the page for most of us will be tomorrow afternoon when reigning champions Toulon host former winners Leinster – a game which will looks like being a European swansong one way or the other as Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Wilkinson approach the end of their respective careers.
For lovers of rugby this is the kind of game you dream about, and poses some interesting questions. Have Toulon got too many older guys in their side? You go through the names, Carl Hayman, Jonny, Matt Giteau, Ali Williams etc etc, and they are all outstanding players.
A side like that is a virtual Barbarians or World XV, and will be almost self-coached. I cannot imagine the management having to spend too much time telling them what needs to be done when they seem quite capable of doing it themselves. It is a real foreign legion when you look at the nationalities making up their squad, and for a few of those senior boys there will be a hint of this being the last opportunity during some magnificent careers.
Likewise for some of the Leinster team – certainly for Brian O’Driscoll.
They Irish province have already proven themselves at this level and you would be hard-pressed to pick a winner with any degree of confidence given the immense scoring threats within both sides.
The good thing is that Munster and Toulouse have the Welsh referee Nigel Owens, and Toulon and Leinster have Wayne Barnes of England.
That increases the chances of two key games passing by without unnecessary disruption and, if I was a player out there at the moment, those are the officials who would give me the greatest degree of confidence. As we all prepare to take in this feast of Heineken Cup rugby it is worth celebrating the fact that the impasse over the tournament’s future appears to be coming to an end.
Where money, status and egos are involved these things can take an age to resolve themselves, but the signs seem to be at the moment that we will have a top-class European competition next season.
The governance and name could well change from what we have become accustomed to with the Heineken Cup, but it seemed impossible to conceive the thought of rugby in the northern hemisphere without a tournament of this stature.
People have been saying all along that it would turn out right in the end, and common sense appears to have prevailed despite months of brinksmanship. The bean-counters have sorted their differences, and rugby fans are the ultimate winners.