All eyes this weekend may have been on the Heineken Cup, but Europe’s secondary competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, also served up some intriguing fixtures. The stylistic clashes of Gloucester vs Biarritz and Bath vs Stade Francais were expected to make good viewing, and the excitement surrounding the all-French affair of Perpignan vs Toulouse and the explosive London Wasps vs Leinster contest were also not to be missed.
The quarter finals got under way on Thursday night, as Gloucester played host to Biarritz at Kingsholm. Despite showing some great attacking endeavour, a sight which Gloucester fans have become used to this season, they were not able to live with the physicality of Biarritz, and ultimately succumbed to a 41-31 defeat. Ill-discipline also cost the Cherry and Whites, as yellow cards to both Dario Chistolini and Koree Britton saw the home side ship 24 points during their time in the sin-bin. Playing Biarritz is never easy, but the French side currently sit at 8th in the Top 14, and the Aviva Premiership playoff-chasing Gloucester would have been optimistic about advancing to the semi-finals before the game.
Across the Channel, Perpignan were also bucking expectations as they defeated perennial Heineken Cup powerhouse Toulouse, 30-19 at the Stade Aime Giral. Home advantage seemed to be crucial for Perpignan, as was the excellent performance from James Hook, who kicked 15 points and helped his side to an impressive win. The loss adds to a forgettable season for Toulouse who, as well as being knocked out of both European competitions, have played second fiddle to both Clermont and Toulon in the Top 14, and will need to improve significantly if they want to be a real contender when the Top 14 playoffs start.
With both teams willing to run from deep and spread the ball out wide, not to mention players who can make something from nothing, the Wasps vs Leinster clash was never going to be short of expectations, and fortunately the game delivered. Despite heroics from Wasps’ two illustrious wingers, Christian Wade and Tom Varndell, who grabbed two tries apiece in front of the watching Warren Gatland and Stuart Lancaster, the precision and power of Leinster, especially at the breakdown and set-piece, was too much for the English side, who fell to a 48-28 defeat. Worthy of note was the performance of victorious fly-half Ian Madigan. The youngster was in imperious form and has shown real signs that Jonathan Sexton will have serious competition for Ireland’s number 10 jersey in the near future.
The weekend’s action was rounded off at The Rec, where Stade Francais looked as if they had a point to prove, as they overpowered Bath on their way to a 36-20 victory. Braces from both Waisea Vuidarvuwalu and Hugo Bonneval were vital for Stade Francais as they outplayed their hosts, but unfortunately the game is likely to be remembered for an act of ill-discipline, rather than the rugby which was played. Accusations have been made by Peter Stringer that Stade Francais scrum-half Jerome Fillol spat at him, and the replays seem to confirm this. A citing will likely quickly ensue.
Both Gloucester and Bath’s losses at home to underperforming French sides will likely raise questions over the strength of the ‘intermediate’ sides in Aviva Premiership, especially when compared to their French counterparts. Wasps’ loss to Leinster is a little more understandable, given that just last season they were battling against relegation, and that Leinster currently sit 3rd in the RaboDirect PRO12, but will leave Dai Young no uncertainty over the areas he needs to improve as they head into the business end of the season.
Leinster will now play host to Biarritz at RDS in a salivating clash on the 27th April, whilst Stade Francais will have to make the trip to Perpignan on that same weekend, as all four teams compete to be in the final in Dublin on the 17th May.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)