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James Haskell: Wasps fall in classic episode of Euro thrills

 Leinster beating WaspsThe Premiership is fantastically competitive week-in- week-out. It’s hard, it’s physical and many of the weekly match-ups could easily be described as being big games.

However if you ask any player, what does the term  ‘big game’  really mean to them and inevitably it is the European fixtures which really whet their appetite.

The opportunity to play against the likes of Toulouse, Clermont or Munster. The H-Cup as it is called in France, is for me the premier tournament in world rugby. Where else do you get the atmosphere? The consistency of quality matches? The grandiose occasion, which rivals even that of most international matches, for the sheer intensity, excitement and passion?

As with any competition, there is always room for improvement. I, like many others, feel the structure of qualification needs to be looked at closely. Every team and player wants to pit themselves against the best in Europe and see how they fare.

For example, as a back-row player only the lucky few get to play against the European juggernaughts on the international stage during a Six Nations. Aside from the H-Cup and Amlin Cups, when do non-internationals get their opportunity to pit their wits against Sergio Parisse, Thierry Dusautoir, Louis Picamoles or Joe van Niekirk.

If your club aren’t fortunate enough to be in the H-Cup, the trusty Amlin, the little brother of the H-Cup, comes to the rescue. It’s another tough tournament, which has the ultimate prize of handing you and your team a pass into the H-Cup.

A bit like being in a night club. You are having a good time but you can see the VIP area, which looks very appealing, holding as it does all those famous people you have heard about and have always wanted to meet. Well, win the Amlin Cup and, miraculously, the old velvet rope is lifted and you are welcomed in with open arms.

In the group stages in the Amlin, you usually don’t quite reach the highlights of playing in the famous stadiums of the south of France or the cauldron that is Thomond Park. There is a considerable diversity of teams, which you don’t normally experience in the H-Cup pool stages; this is why it is so special. Please don’t misunderstand me, they are all good teams and good locations, but they don’t quite have the gravitas of their other European ‘bigger brother’ clubs.

However, where the Amlin has really come into its own, these past few seasons, is thanks to the inspired decision to allow the three teams which just failed to qualify for the H-Cup quarter finals, to enter the Amlin Cup quarter-final draw. Suddenly you are playing those big teams and, like ourselves on Friday night, you find yourselves facing two-time European champions, Leinster.

Wasps, H-Cup regulars and also two-time winners were on the cusp of extinction six months ago but now, thanks to the new owners, we’re in the process of successfully rebuilding.

Progression through the Amlin Cup presented a huge opportunity to take away some silverware and show how far the club has come since finishing second bottom in the Premiership a season ago.

The game was everything we expected it would be – very fast, physical and ultimately another classic H-Cup/Amlin encounter. All the players were putting their best feet forward, as among the sell-out crowd at Adams Park the professional eyes of Stuart Lancaster and Warren Gatland were being cast over both teams.

It was a disappointment for us not to get the result they wanted, after starting so well: two electric tries from Christian Wade – is there a better finisher in Europe at the moment? On that display he could well be the uncapped Lions tourist.

We were all bitterly disappointed, after working so hard, defending gallantly as well as playing brilliantly in parts, to have gifted 14 easy points to a very dangerous side.

Leinster were direct and powerful. Some of their interplay before the line of contact was outstanding. However I don’t think the final score of 28-48 reflected the match as a whole. There certainly wasn’t a 20-point difference between the sides.

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