CHRIS FOY: French prevail as Top 14 stranglehold could tighten with Premiership flop

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It appeared that a walk-over had taken place when the European competitions were judged based on the Champions Cup quarter-finals and the final score was: Top 14: 3, Pro 14: 1, Premiership: 0.

Another chilling weekend for the English elite saw Sale beaten well at La Rochelle and Exeter’s title defense turned to dust as they slipped a 14-0 lead to lose to Leinster at home.

Their demise came a week after Gloucester, Wasps and Bristol were ejected in the round of 16 – and the presence of Bath and Leicester in the Challenge Cup semi-final was modest consolation given the half-hearted attitude of many French sides towards the secondary competition.

The Premier League is out of the Champions Cup representatives when Exeter and Sale dropped out

The Premier League is out of the Champions Cup representatives when Exeter and Sale dropped out

The Top 14 had three teams in the semi-finals, as the French want to dominate the tournament

The Top 14 had three teams in the semi-finals, as the French want to dominate the tournament

The Top 14 had three teams in the semi-finals, as the French want to dominate the tournament

With the Premiership’s salary cap lowered next season, there is a good chance that the Gaul clubs will become increasingly dominant in continental rugby, if they commit to it.

The professional game across the Channel is livelier than here, where ring-fencing is also on the way. But comparing the leagues is complex.

The Top 14 have more money than the rest, more quality imports, more coverage, and more fans. It should be the best product, but that’s not always the case – as the quarter-finals of the French Champions Cup on Sunday proved.

Premiership sides can fall behind with the teams' salary budgets that will be cut the next term

Premiership sides can fall behind with the teams' salary budgets that will be cut the next term

Premiership sides can fall behind with the teams’ salary budgets that will be cut the next term

Bordeaux v Racing 92 was undoubtedly one of the worst European occasions ever – a mess of poor execution and tough tactics derided as ‘absolute rubbish’ by BT Sport.

Shortly afterwards, Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse were likewise satisfied with a swollen arm wrestle.

As for Celtic, claiming Leinster’s success in Exeter was a win for the Pro 14, that’s bullshit. The Irish province is a standard-bearer for their own talent production line, not the competition they win without even trying.

Dan Biggar, the flying half of Northampton, so long a proud Osprey, talked about the Premiership when he told the All Access podcast, “The intensity blows the Pro 14 out of the water.”

Leinster got past Exeter, but their win means little to the health of their Pro 14 league

Leinster got past Exeter, but their win means little to the health of their Pro 14 league

Leinster got past Exeter, but their win means little to the health of their Pro 14 league

Adding South African teams can add more intensity, but those matches cannot evoke the rivalry that exists in England and France.

The Pro 14 is a distant third in any European league table. But which competition is the best?

While the Premiership is the most competitive, changing a closed store can change that. Even the leading French clubs can be erratic, but the balance of power is with the Top 14.

Six Nations in limbo

The clash between Ireland and France in the Women’s Six Nations in Dublin on Saturday is questionable due to increased Covid restrictions.

Tournament organizers desperately want the game to continue and no wonder – the event desperately needs competitive matches to improve it.

Ireland may have to wait to take on France as the nation plunges into even tighter restrictions

Ireland may have to wait to take on France as the nation plunges into even tighter restrictions

Ireland may have to wait to take on France as the nation plunges into even tighter restrictions

The last matches were brutally one-sided as England crushed Italy and Wales was pushed aside by the Irish. Four mismatches have yielded winning margins of 42, 53, 64 and 45 points so far.

This year’s rescheduled women’s competition occupies its own window, offering an opportunity to increase the profile – by ensuring proper competitions are held.

More unions need to invest in their women’s teams, but in a time of financial turmoil, that prospect is a long way off.

Lions get weaker

The Lions still plan to announce their full coaching staff on Tuesday, despite Andy Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree excluding themselves from the South Africa tour.

Their absence will deprive head coach Warren Gatland of the vast know-how of previous British and Irish Crusades, but he apparently feels confident in his plans to back down.

One of these is likely the inclusion of Robin McBryde, who was part of Gatland’s Welsh lineup for many years and is now an assistant coach at Leinster, meaning he has a knowledge of leading Welsh and Irish forwards.

Warren Gatland will regret the absence of key coaching staff when he announces his coaches

Warren Gatland will regret the absence of key coaching staff when he announces his coaches

Warren Gatland will regret the absence of key coaching staff when he announces his coaches

Sportsmail understands England’s coach John Mitchell is not being considered overseeing the Lions defense.

Steve Tandy has done a good job with Scotland and has emerged as the preferred option. What is certain is that Neil Jenkins will coach the kickers and Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will be the offensive guru.

Tasty duels in the semi-finals

The Champions Cup semi-finals offer intriguing sub-plots for game makers. In La Rochelle against Leinster, the Irish icons of the past and the present will collide.

Ronan O’Gara is the head coach of the French club hoping to make it to Europe’s showpiece for the first time.

In the path of the former Munster No. 10 stands Johnny Sexton – the man he competed with for a test shirt and later became a mentor at Racing 92.

In the other semi-final, Toulouse v Bordeaux pits the French fly-half candidates, Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert, against each other. Their duel could be an artistic classic.

This column will highlight a Toulouse-La Rochelle final.

CHRIS FOY’S TEAM OF THE WEEK

15 J Larmour (Leinster)

14 T O’Flaherty (Exeter)

13 G Doumayrou (La Rochelle)

12 R Henshaw (Leinster)

11 Rule of law (La Rochelle)

10 M Jalibert (Bordeaux)

9 A Dupont (Toulouse)

8 J Conan (Leinster)

1 J Poirot (Bordeaux)

2 P Bourgarit (La Rochelle)

3 U Atonio (La Rochelle)

4 W Skelton (La Rochelle)

5 D toner (Leinster)

6 G Alldritt (La Rochelle)

7 J van der Flier (Leinster)

Top try

La Rochelle’s first against Sale was a gem, with Ihaia West’s cross-kick taken to the left by No. 8 Victor Vito, who stepped in and delivered a sublime off-load for Gregory Alldritt to score.

Immediate impact

Ross Byrne came in for Johnny Sexton and quickly emerged from his shadow, while Leinster’s playmaker helped conjure a shot for Jordan Larmour and converted from wide on the right.

Super push

Sale’s pack was no match for the monstrous Uini Atonio and Will Skelton, on the tight side of La Rochelle’s scrum, who led a set-piece demolition in the 19th minute.

Will Skelton (center of photo) and Uini Atonio overpowered Sale Sharks in action for La Rochelle

Will Skelton (center of photo) and Uini Atonio overpowered Sale Sharks in action for La Rochelle

Will Skelton (center of photo) and Uini Atonio overpowered Sale Sharks in action for La Rochelle

Take it fair

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter admitted his side had no calm against Leinster. “We went into meltdown mode a little too early,” he said. “The scoreboard wasn’t as bad as the players thought it was.”

Official broadcast

Referee Matt Carley had to let tired Racing 92 lock Donnacha Ryan know his time was up, saying, ‘You’ve done your business, haven’t you? I think you will be replaced. ‘

Give them a sock

Damian Penaud, Clermont Auvergne’s French wing, apparently thought he was appearing at the Center Court in Wimbledon – he appeared to be wearing white tennis socks against Toulouse.