Finn Russell scored and set-up a try in last weekend's win over Sale Sharks
Paris (AFP) - Racing 92’s Finn Russell said France’s success at Test level highlights the country’s clubs’ recent dominance in the European Champions Cup before his club host La Rochelle in the competition’s last four on Sunday.
Three of the four sides who have made it to the semi-finals are French, as was also the case last season, with record five-time champions Toulouse heading to four-time winners Leinster on Saturday.
Les Bleus won the Six Nations Grand Slam in March and are among the favourites for next year’s Rugby World Cup, held on home soil.
“I’ve been here four seasons. The French league and the national team have become stronger and stronger,” Russell told reporters after Sunday’s quarter-final win over Sale Sharks.
“For three clubs to be in the semi-finals it shows the strength of the Top 14,” the 29-year-old added.
Russell, who moved to Paris from Glasgow in 2018, partnered 19-year-old man-of-the-match Nolan Le Garrec at half-back in last weekend’s win.
Racing’s outfit also included 11 other products from their academy, including 21-year-old full-back Max Spring.
“I think the academies are so important, over here, and everywhere,” Russell said.
“You see Max Spring and Nolan, there are a lot of our boys who have come through the academy,” he added.
The Top 14 is the only professional league in Europe with relegation and promotion this term, unlike Leinster’s United Rugby Championship and the English Premiership.
The practice has been frozen in England for this season as second-tier hopefuls Doncaster Knights and Ealing Trailfinders failed to meet standards for the top-flight.
“There are never easy games. Every game you’re going to have to go down there and win,” Russell said of the Top 14.
“Every week you’re playing in must-win games. You drop a few points and it puts you in a tough position. Over here teams are scrapping to avoid the relegation battle, to stay up.
“For me playing at Racing we’re not at the bottom but when you go away to teams, they’re fighting as hard as they can,” he added.
- Familiar foes -
Ex-Ireland fly-half Ronan O'Gara (L) was appointed La Rochelle director of rugby this season
This weekend Russell’s side welcome last season’s Top 14 and Champions Cup runners-up La Rochelle.
But it will be at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens, 200km (125 miles) north of Paris, with their La Defense Arena home in the French capital booked out by a rap concert.
The Parisians lost to Ronan O’Gara’s side in late March and in last season’s domestic semi-finals.
“We’ve played La Rochelle a few times over the past few years,” he said.
“It’s a team we know well, and we’ll have to get ourselves right for that game.
“Knock-out rugby can be different, you can have a few decisions go for or against you,” he added.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Leinster (IRL) v Toulouse (FRA) (1400)
In Lens, France
Racing 92 (FRA) v La Rochelle (FRA)