After a thrilling weekend of European knockout rugby in both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, Guinness PRO12 business resumes this weekend with several Celtic sides flying high after progressing into the semi-finals.
Leinster and Munster showed why they are first and second respectively in the Guinness PRO12 with impressive home victories over Wasps and Toulouse respectively, while Glasgow Warriors’ European fairytale came to an end at the hands of defending champions Saracens.
And with Warren Gatland naming his British & Irish Lions squad on April 19, players are running out of time to impress the Lions head coach.
Here we take a look at who shone during this weekend’s European fixtures.
Simon Zebo and Munster demolished French outfit Toulouse at Thomond Park to march into the last four of the European Champions Cup for the first time in three years.
The Guinness PRO12 outfit scored four tries to go with fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal’s 21 points from the tee to set up a semi-final with defending champions Saracens.
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) April 1, 2017
Though he did not get on the scoresheet, Irish flyer Zebo impressed throughout the battle in Limerick.
Zebo has been deployed at full-back for his club this term – though Joe Schmidt has tended to select him on the wing – and has proved himself to be a measured and dependable option in the No.15 jersey.
And Zebo varied up his kick return game well on Saturday as he kept Toulouse guessing whether he would pass, kick or run.
It was the latter that proved most effective for Zebo as he ran for 101 metres in a thrilling victory for Munster.
Defensively, Zebo did all that was required of him, making four covering tackles without missing one.
And with Warren Gatland naming his British & Irish Lions squad on April 19, Zebo will have another two fixtures to impress the man who called him up as a replacement on the 2013 Tour.
Leinster flanker Sean O’Brien showed his class at the weekend as Leinster powered past Aviva Premiership leaders Wasps and into the last four of the European Champions Cup where they will meet Clermont.
Leinster scored four tries in all, three of which were dotted down by a backline inspired by Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery.
But it was the forwards that laid the platform for the speed men to do the damage out wide and British & Irish Lion O’Brien was at the heart of Leinster’s dog work.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) April 2, 2017
O’Brien, who has made 49 appearances for Ireland and two Test appearances for the Lions, made 15 carries at the Aviva Stadium making 77 metres in a fierce contest in Dublin.
O’Brien also made more tackles than any other Leinster player (11) in a dominant display in the loose.
His pace and power in the back row was no doubt one of the reasons Gatland selected O’Brien to wear the No.7 jersey in the deciding final Test in 2013 and Gatland will have noticed O’Brien’s impressive form of late.
With Leinster flying high in the Guinness PRO12 – top of the league by two points from rivals Munster, as well as in Europe, O’Brien will be hoping his performances will see him get selected for his second tour.
Although Edinburgh flanker Hamish Watson ended up on the losing side in Friday night’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final with La Rochelle, the Scot fought tirelessly to keep his side’s European dream alive.
Watson’s side were beaten 32-22 by the Top 14 leaders at BT Murrayfield despite a spirited comeback in the second half of the game led by Watson who touched down for a score.
FULL-TIME | Edinburgh Rugby 22 – 32 La Rochelle pic.twitter.com/bnXrSjztrg
— Edinburgh Rugby (@EdinburghRugby) March 31, 2017
And after a series of eye-catching performances in the blue of Scotland during the RBS 6 Nations, Watson announced himself as a real contender to feature in Gatland’s Lions squad despite the abundance of quality back rows.
Watson made five clean breaks to go with his second-half try in a display that underlined his ability to break the tackle with ball in hand.
But it is his tackling and ferocious work at the breakdown that he has been known for and he made 11 tackles (more than any other player on the pitch) in a valiant effort to keep Edinburgh in the game.
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final