Since the first European cup in 1995, 3 nations teams have monopolised the winners podium, France (8 times), Ireland (6 times) and England (6 times), on paper, (or on your screen) it looks pretty even, but the last winners from England were Wasps in 06/07. Another interesting anomaly is that the losing finalists have come from France (11 times), England (5 times), Ireland (3 times) and Wales just once. So in 20 finals, we've seen France provide almost half of the teams.
That's enough of the numbers for now.
The French Top 14 has recently worked on a far higher salary cap than the rest of Europe, which explains their recent dominance, the Irish sides have been blessed with some of Europes best players, and anyone who's watched the Pro 12 will admit that the key players are rested far more regularly than other nations players, which goes some way to showing the Provinces spell of success between 2006 and 2012 (where they only failed to win twice). Obviously, Munster and Leinster contained some amazing talents during that time as well, so the rested players certainly weren't the only factor in the wins,
This year however has seen, for the first time in almost 10 years, English clubs en masse have put in a tremendous showing in the tournament, with 5 clubs reaching the last 8, and 3 reaching the semi's this weekend. The 2 eliminated teams, Exeter and Northampton, were both put out of the Cup by fellow English teams, Wasps and Saracens, respectively, setting up an all English semi between the 2 victors.
The other semi finals saw Dan Carters Racing Metro edge out the champions of the last 3 seasons, All Star Toulon and Leicester Tigers buck the weekends trend for close games by annihilating the Top 14 champions, Stade Francais to set up a mouthwatering semi final clash at the City Ground.
The possibility of an all English finale is a sea change from recent seasons, with only 4 English finalists in the last dozen seasons, which includes one all English clash between Wasps and Tigers, meaning in 12 years, England have only been represented in three finals!
So what has caused this? Have the English clubs improved or are the Pro 12 and Top 14 sides in decline? The answer is a little of both, the raised English salary cap and introduction of the second marquee player has certainly put the Premiership sides in a better position to challenge the huge spending French sides and the lack of funds in the Pro 12 has hit their clubs hard, Munster and Leinster haven't been able to replace the big stars like O'Driscoll, O'Gara and O'Connell as they can seldom compete financially for the big signatures, the Welsh regions have lost several top players to clubs in France and England and are relying on youngsters, cheap foreign imports and journeymen, The Scottish clubs, especially Glasgow, looked prime to compete, but have floundered this season and again seem set to lose players to the Prem and Top 14, and as for the Italian clubs..... well, they're making up the numbers nicely....
The Premiership will again raise the salary cap next season, allowing the clubs to compete with the top French sides for the big name players, and already, there are some HUGE players confirmed as on their way to England, the likes of Matt Toomua, JP Pieterson, Schalk Burger, Taulupe Faletau, Luke Charteris, Dave Dennis, Louis Picamoles and MANY others are going to grace the Premiership, so the future is looking bright for these European adventures to continue.
There is nothing set in stone to say that one of the English sides will end the season as European Champions, Racing are far too good a side to write off just because they are outnumbered, but the strong showings from Tigers, Saracens, Chiefs, Saints and Wasps aren't a step in the right direction, they are huge leaps towards putting England back at the pinnacle of European rugby and breaking the recent French stranglehold on the cup, with the aforementioned signings strengthening the top clubs, this season could be the first stepping stone towards the English Premiership having their own spell of dominance!