Leinster will meet the Champions Cup winners and Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs in Sandy Park next Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm) in a game that will go a long way toward defining their season.
Although Exeter ultimately responded to an early 14-0 deficit to run in seven tries in a commanding 47-25 win at home against Lyon on Saturday, the suspicion lurks that the Chiefs haven’t yet scaled the heights of last season.
For all their dominance of the Pro14, after their walkover against Toulon on Friday this also amounts to Leinster’s biggest test since the 25-17 quarter-final defeat by Saracens last September.
All in all then, we are about to find out an awful lot more about the respective standard-bearers of Irish and English club rugby.
"I think we will have to be better next week and we will be," said Rob Baxter after sealing their date with Leinster. "I think the game time to get that team aligning was really important. They needed to knock themselves back into being club players, to get into Exeter Chiefs systems, and they have done that today."
The Chiefs have now won their last eight home games in the Champions Cup and Baxter attributed the initial rustiness against Lyon the return of their international contingent - Jonny Hill, scorer of two tries, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Stuart Hogg, Sam Skinner, Johnny Gray and Tom Francis.
“We had one of those funny starts and it proved that we needed a game,” added Baxter, who also rested virtually all of his front-liners for the previous week’s defeat by Gloucester.
“We just needed that time to align and I’m really pleased that’s happened now. We needed a game to give us a chance at being better next weekend. We started the process of improvement. After this I’d expect us to be at least 10 per cent better.”
Baxter also played down any real concern over the Simmonds brothers, Joe and Sam, both of whom limped off in the second half with cramp.
Leinster have beaten Exeter in all four previous European meetings, doing the double over them in the pool stages in 2012-13 and in the back-to-back games in 2017-18, but one senses that will only serve to further motivate the holders.
Five Top 14 sides will feature in next weekend’s quarter-finals, with Bordeaux and Racing 92 ensuring a second all-French tie after yesterday’s 36-17 and 56-3 wins at home to Pat Lam’s Premiership leaders Bristol and Edinburgh.
Sale completed the quarter-final line-up with a commanding 57-14 win over the Scarlets, ex-Connacht outhalf AJ MacGinty scoring 32 points, to earn a tie away to La Rochelle while, of course, Toulouse’s 40-33 win over Munster in Thomond Park on Saturday ensured they would travel to Clermont in the second of an all-French double header next Sunday.
Leinster are the only Pro14 team left in the Champions Cup after what was a shocking weekend for teams representing that competition in Europe. Leaving aside Leinster’s walkover, of the other 11 matches involving Pro14 teams, the only winners were in the Challenge Cup through Benetton, who beat Agen - winless and bottom of the Top 14 - and Ulster away to Harlequins last night.
“I am very proud of all the players, very proud of the organisation,” maintained Johann van Graan after Munster’s exit
“Every time we go on the field, we play to win. We have had a superb season with 16 wins out of 20 games, obviously we would have liked to have qualified for the Champions Cup quarters but you would agree it was a magnificent game of rugby and in certain games you come up short.
“From a Toulouse point of view, they did really well and I thought it was some of the best rugby in the competition thus far.”
While Munster continually knock on the door they consistently fall short against Leinster or the elite sides in Europe, although van Graan maintained: “The frustrating thing is we’re so close every single time.
“We gave it our best shot and we came up short today. That happens in sport, it’s certainly no excuse from my side, we’ve got to improve again.
“If you look at the quality of that game we’ve improved an immense amount over the course of the season. For us, I’m incredibly proud of the 23 boys that played. Unfortunately you pick up certain injuries along the way, you never play with your best team but that’s the same for all teams. We’ve just got to keep improving.
“In terms of alignment from an organisation point of view, from a coaching group, from a players’ point of view, we’re all aligned and we’re going to keep improving and we believe that the best is yet to come.”
The Munster head coach also maintained he has the players to do so.
“Yes, I believe so. I believe in this group, that is why I came here and like I said earlier I believe in the coaching staff and management and I believe in this organisation.”
Saturday’s last 16 defeat leaves Munster with just a hybrid and, beyond the first three rounds of derbies, a slightly hypothetical Rainbow Cup to play for. Their schedule begins in three weeks’ time with yet another match against Leinster.
As to whether Munster target winning that competition or marry this by looking to rotate, Van Graan said: “We will think about it; it has not been on our radar at all but what I would say is that we are going to keep using our squad.”
“We have used 53 players this season. We had two massive games in two weeks, going back to the Benetton game, we played a totally different team. We will definitely rotate our squad in the Rainbow Cup, we will look forward to that now.”
In the European Challenge Cup, Leicester pulled clear with two converted tries in the last eight minutes of another fluctuating, high scoring game to eventually over power Connacht 48-32 at Welford Road.
In the final tie of the weekend, Ulster completed the Challenge Cup quarter-final line-up, where they will play Northampton Saints next Saturday night (kick-off 8pm) with a convincing 57-21 win against a callow, second-string Harlequins.
European quarter-finals (kick-offs Irish time)
Saturday, April 10th
La Rochelle v Sale, Stade Marcel-Deflandre, 3pm, Virgin Media, C4, BT Sport, beIN Sports
Exeter v Leinster, Sandy Park, 5.30, BT Sport, beIN Sports
Sunday, April 11th
Bordeaux-Bègles v Racing 92, Stade Chaban-Delmas, 12.30, BT Sport beIN Sports
Clermont Auvergne v Toulouse, Stade Marcel-Michelin, 3.0, BT Sport, beIN Sports
Friday, April 9th
Bath v London Irish, Recreation Ground, 8.0, BT Sport, beIN Sports
Saturday, April 10th
Leicester v Newcastle, Welford Road, 12.30, BT Sport, beIN Sports
Northampton v Ulster, Franklin's Gardens, 8.0, BT Sport, beIN Sports
Montpellier v Benetton, GGL Stadium, 8.0, BT Sport, beIN Sports
Semi-final draws: Sunday, April 11th
Semi-finals: April 30th- May 1st-2nd
Challenge Cup final: Friday, May 21st
Heineken Champions Cup final: Saturday, May 22nd