Gloucester and France defence coach Dave Ellis looks back at last weekend's Heineken action and a story from his early coaching days whilst managing on a limited budget.
Dave Ellis - Weekly Update
The Heineken Cup once again provided some exceptional rugby last weekend with three French and one English club left in the final four.
Each of the victorious teams have unique characteristics and approaches to the game - Toulouse have a flamboyant style, Stade Francais appear clinical in their approach, Leicester are efficient in all aspects, and Biarritz show real commitment in their displays.
Although there are differences in the style of rugby these teams play, there are also interesting similarities. For instance, as well as having quality players, each of these sides has exceptionally big squads and the luxury of having international replacements on the bench cannot be over estimated.
There is no doubting that the introduction of impact players can change the course of a game and ultimately affect the result, but perhaps more importantly it creates healthy competition within the squads.
Players need to be kept motivated and the fear of losing their place in the starting line-up is often an extremely effective incentive. Austin Healy's 'tongue in cheek' comments that he "considered taking an axe to John Wells car" (after being left out in place of Sam Vesty) illustrate this fact particularly well.
The French clubs do have an advantage over their English counterparts, benefiting from having no salary cap and restrictions to their recruitment. Leicester however, have managed to build a team which has experience in the shape of Johnson, Back, Rowntree and youth with the like of Ellis, Lloyd and Smith.
This combination of quality in the form of hardened professionals and youthful enthusiasm has created a fine balance in the Tigers team and a blend that Premiership clubs will be looking to achieve next season.
With budgets limited through either financial controls or salary caps, it puts more pressure on head coaches to recruit effectively, bringing players in who are able to provide balance and leadership.
All this mention of squad budgets and salary caps is light years away from my early coaching career. One of my first jobs in France was with Corbeill XIII an amateur team who played in the 'Ile de France' Competition. At my first session six players attended, no one had ever done any gym work or conditioning and we had to clear glass and dog excreta from the field before training.
The club had very little money and I had two options available, one to pack my bags and return to England with my family, or two, find creative solutions to the problems. I opted for the latter and addressed the issues. We moved training to a floodlight tennis club, I retired a couple of the older players with bad habits, tapped into the junior section and managed to persuade a couple of English players with the 'right attitude' to come over and play for me. In addition I opened up the basement of my house and ran three weights circuit classes to supplement the squad training nights.
Corbeill XIII was far from the most skilful team, but we managed to bolt experience, youth and enthusiasm together and in my second season gained success by winning the cup and League double.
In stark contrast to my early years in Paris, we are currently in the process of moving from Kingsholm to enjoy the new complex at Hartpury College. The training facilities are brand new, far superior to the aged equipment at the club and I can already detect players feel more comfortable in the new settings.
Training and playing in the same facilities week in, week out, understandably leads to staleness and I believe the new complex will provide a refreshing change with players and coaches benefiting from the more professional surroundings.
In 2002/2003, our most successful season in recent times (when we won the Powergen Cup and finished top of the League before losing to Wasps in the play off final), we had a squad capable of challenging for silverware.
Our objective next season is to build on our talented young squad by recruiting the right type of individuals to create a competitive environment and provide real opposition to the best in Europe.
It's the first Gloucester-Bristol derby at Kingsholm in over eight years this Saturday (kick off 4:30pm) and, previewing the game with the local media this week, Defence Coach Jonny Bell stressed that, with both teams in the bottom half of the table, they both need the points.
Speaking to the local media this week, Gloucester front rower John Afoa knows the challenge ahead this week against Bristol, and calls on the Cherry and Whites to make the most of home advantage as a determined squad look to bounce back from a narrow loss to Saracens.
Tom Savage speaks to GRTV and the local media as Gloucester went down by 24-20 at Saracens on Sunday afternoon. The second row was disappointed with the result, despite a strong showing from the hosts.
Speaking immediately after the game, skipper Willi Heinz thought that Gloucester had executed their game plan reasonably well and competed hard against Saracens. However, it wasn't enough but the squad will have plenty to work on this week ahead of the derby match against Bristol.
Gloucester may be coming off their best win of the season, the 38-16 victory over Wasps last weekend, but Director of Rugby David Humphreys admits that Sunday's trip to Saracens is an even tougher test.
After a series of contract announcements last week, hooker Richard Hibbard is the latest Gloucester Rugby player to commit to a new contract at the club and told GRTV how much he enjoys playing in the Cherry and White of Gloucester.
A try scorer in the 36-18 Aviva Premiership win over Wasps at Kingsholm on Saturday, Charlie Sharples admitted that Gloucester would enjoy the moment but can't get too carried away. The team got what they deserved but the winger wants these performances to be more frequent.
England Head Coach Eddie Jones has made two changes to his side to play Australia in Saturday's final match of the Old Mutual Wealth Series at Twickenham Stadium (kick-off 2.30pm, live on Sky Sports 2). Jonny May lines up on the left wing.