Stunning Saracens, coronavirus cloud & World Cup plans

By Sara OrchardBBC Sport
Saracens' players celebrate
Saracens held off a stirring Leinster fightback to keep their hopes of retaining the Heineken Champions Cup alive

The European quarter-finals weekend was meant to be played in April, but the wait was worth it for the Leinster v Saracens tie alone.

Elsewhere, coronavirus continues to impact stadiums, results and finances, while the women's Rugby World Cup hype started.

Here are some of rugby union's talking points from the past seven days.

Saracens simply stunning

On paper, European Champions Cup top seeds Leinster were going to win their quarter-final with Saracens every day of the week.

However, the defending champions arrived in Dublin to play one of the greatest games of rugby the tournament has seen.

Speaking after the match, director of rugby Mark McCall said: "This is what we have dreamt about. It has been such a difficult, testing, challenging year for everybody. The playing group have been magnificent in the way that they have stayed united all the way through. It is a good story so far."

Saracens' Alex Goode scores a try
Alex Goode's try helped Saracens to a 22-3 half-time lead against Leinster

This Saracens victory was built on forward domination. Maro Itoje laid down another marker in the debate of who should be 2021 Lions captain, appearing to be one step ahead of Leinster all afternoon as they couldn't handle his game intelligence or physicality.

Irish international trio Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter had no answers to the performances of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Vincent Kock, who won seven penalties.

With Saracens already relegated from the Premiership at end of the 2019-20 season for salary cap breaches, this was a team taking to the Champions Cup stage with a XV lacking seven players that helped them to their 2019 victory. Liam Williams, Alex Lozowski, Ben Spencer, Titi Lamositele, Will Skelton and George Kruis have all gone, while the talismanic Owen Farrell is banned.

As Leinster's season crashed to a halt, a special mention to one of the most decorated Irish sportsmen, Rob Kearney, who is now retired. While he did lift the Pro 14 title the previous week, he wasn't selected for the Saracens game and the pandemic once again denies another sporting giant a deserved farewell.

What else happened

Romain Poite
Referee Romain Poite, pictured in December, caused a stir on social media because of a persistent cough during Racing 92's victory over Clermont

Saracens' prize for victory is a trip to La Defence Arena in Paris to take on Racing 92 who dispatched perpetual European bridesmaids Clermont in a bruising encounter. Rugby day-dreamers are already lost to the thoughts of the collisions between Racing's French international hooker Camille Chat and Saracens' Itoje.

Much was made on social media of referee Romain Poite's cough throughout the Clermont-Racing quarter-final. The subject was actually trending on Twitter at one point. Referees are tested regularly like the players, meaning Poite would have tested negative for coronavirus before the game.

Exeter's reward for making their first European semi-final with victory over Northampton is to spend their semi-final week debating how to tackle Toulouse World Cup-winning wing Cheslin Kolbe. The South African twice ran circles around Ulster to score.

We shouldn't forget the Challenge Cup which made its own quarter-final headlines, particularly Bristol's Fijian wonder centre Semi Radradra who is proving to be worth every penny spent by Bears owner Steve Lansdown.

Coronavirus cloud

Despite such a glittering rugby weekend, Covid-19 was never far from any rugby conversation.

Leicester have been given a free ride into the Challenge Cup semi-finals after three Castres players and one of their support staff tested positive for coronavirus. Their quarter-final was cancelled and Leicester gifted the semi-final spot. This was the first big-game casualty of positive tests and, of greater concern, could prove to be a story repeated more often.

The full scale of the impact of the virus on rugby union was laid bare by Irish Rugby Football Union chief executive Philip Browne. He told an Irish parliamentary committee the "very existence of professional rugby" in Ireland is under threat unless fans can return in large numbers.

Browne's words came on the day before it was announced that South African Pro 14 side Southern Kings had been put into voluntary liquidation.

Rugby union, like most professional sport, is fast approaching a precipice. No amount of brilliant European rugby on TV can replace the urgent financial need for unions and clubs to get bums on seats as fast as governments will allow.

Happier hype in New Zealand

Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand
The Black Ferns will open the women's Rugby World Cup on 18 September 2021

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took centre stage to promote the "one year to go" marker for the women's 2021 Rugby World Cup on Friday. New Zealand Rugby capitalised on the moment to announce that the Black Ferns will open the tournament at Eden Park. The 50,000-capacity stadium had already been confirmed as the final venue.

While New Zealand has enjoyed relatively low levels of Covid-19 cases, organisers are already in discussions with the NZ government to support teams arriving in the country to self-isolate if needed.

Tournament director Michelle Hooper told BBC Sport of the their commitment to "supercharging the women's game".

Hear all the latest news with Chris Jones, Ugo Monye, Danny Care and guests as they debate the big talking points on the Rugby Union Weekly podcast

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