It was simple: Edinburgh had to win. Three clubs’ (including Glasgow) quarterfinal chances were riding on this, but the Scotsmen were focused more on getting a seemingly impossible home quarterfinal as well as ensuring a complete Scottish presence in the last 8 alongside the Glasgow Warriors.
The match was not exactly an enthralling one, but there moments of flashiness and brilliance which is now expected from the Scots. Winger Duhan van der Merwe was brutal and made no end of metres, while prop WP Nel was cannonballing the Montpellier scrum so much that World Cup winner Springbok prop Jannie du Plessis was subbed off at the 30th minute and his “through the legs” offload was simply outrageous. Three Jaco van der Walt penalties had the home side in the lead at the break despite a converted Jaques du Plessis try for Montpellier at the stroke of halftime. However, a dive in the corner from Scotland call up Darcy Graham extended the lead and the French southerners were far too error strewn to realistically challenge Richard Cockerill’s men’s lead and the home team’s defence was strong enough to withhold until the final minute.
Toulon beat Newcastle by three points in a frantic affair
This was a great chance for Newcastle to achieve a rare double over the once French giants and get some momentum for a crucial period in which they must try to avoid relegation. Newcastle made the brightest start through Fijian international Josh Matavesi but a Josua Tuisova-inspired Toulon were rampant and scored tries from Filipo Nakosi and Daniel Ikpefan and took the lead at the break. Newcastle responded ferociously through number 8 Nemani Nagusa and scrumhalf Michael Young to regain the lead however replacement prop Bastien Soury burrowed over to restore the away team’s lead. Both sides were error-strewn in the last 10 as Newcastle tried to regain the win but Toulon held on for a rather unexpected result, one which they can very much build on to move up in the Top14 and qualify for the Champions Cup next season.
Glasgow make good account of themselves but Sarries too good
Saracens were forced into making a late change with the removal of Owen Farrell which nearly sent the BT Sport commentary team into a frantic delirium, with Alex Goode moving to flyhalf. The home team raced to a 7-0 lead through a converted Ben Spencer try. The Glaswegians, backed by their chanting away support, struck back with Tommy Seymour diving over after receiving a wonderful miss-pass, scrumhalf Ali Price then pounced on a charged down box-kick to race away under the sticks and the Scots were in the lead. No sooner had prop Vincent Koch replied for the hosts from the maul than Number 8 Ryan Wilson picked off a great line to burrow over. Superb last-ditch defending from Adam Hastings denied George Kruis a tremendous finish but the Premiership champions were unaffected and soon grabbed the halftime lead when the impressive Billy Vunipola barged over from the scrum. After the break, the home team were much more clinical and scavenger-like, pouncing on the Warriors’ poor setpiece, the imposing Maro Itoje scored after slick tip-ons from Jamie George and replacement Will Skelton, then the latter battered his way over to confirm a home quarterfinal and a practically perfect 28 out of a possible 30 points in their pool.
Cardiff finish their Champions Cup campaign on a high note
Welsh Rugby will not be happy with the four provinces’ performance in either European competition with not a single Welsh side qualifying for the knockouts, so at least that’s a gratifying consolation for us English. However Cardiff, last year’s Challenge Cup champions, did leave with a bang with an enthralling home performance against Lyon, they played some sublime rugby, and after the forward pack put the home side on the front foot, the backs could cast their magic. Tomos Williams’ offload was nothing short of sensational, even though it was probably forward. The match could be perceived later as significant by the Cardiff supporters as it offers them great momentum as a challenging Pro14 periods awaits as they seek Champions Cup qualification for next season.
Ulster pip Leicester at home by a single point
With away fans aplenty and in an impressive boisterous voice (not doubt bolstered by some Guinness), the Ulstermen travelled to Leicester as firm favourites. Tigers came out fighting, effectively disrupting the lineout and absolutely tearing the scrum to shreds (tighthead Dan Cole was just magnificent) which perhaps wasn’t awarded enough by the referee. Leicester scored a thrilling try at the cusp of halftime, in which a George Ford grubber was superbly dotted down by Wallaby Matt Toomua and the home team had their tails up with a 13-0 lead at halftime. However, Ulster capitalised on Tigers’ errors and indiscipline scoring a try off the rolling mall and a clever Billy Burns chip was collected by young wing Robert Baloucoune to score under the posts, giving the Northern Irishmen a narrow 1 point lead. Tigers went after them and prop Greg Bateman galloped through but was brought down five metres out and the home team soon turned the ball over, and they had another chance in which they should’ve gone for the drop-goal but were again turned over and left the quite numerous away fans in raptures. Leicester can take heart from the performance of their pack, while their backline let them down, maybe too conscious about their fitness for the upcoming Six Nations.
Racing 92 bag home quarterfinal by beating Scarlets in a nine-try thriller
The Parisians simply had to win to ensure a home semifinal, but they certainly won in style. The head-to-head of two teams who offer scintillating attacking rugby had the prospect of an entertaining encounter, one which was undoubtedly delivered. Virimi Vakatawa raised eyebrows as to his exclusion from the French Six Nations squad with another powerful performance in the centre, culminating in a short burst try. Finn Russell was again marvellous, mostly at the centre of all things that Racing wonderfully carved, and although Scarlets responded through well-finished Johnny McNicoll and Steff Evans’ tries as well as predictable French indiscipline, the home team’s power and dominance in the collisions meant that the result was theirs.
Munster edge the Exeter Chiefs to qualify for Europe once again
This was perhaps the direst game of the weekend, but when the two sides are two forward-dominated sides going against each other in multiphase gameplay, that was to be expected. Lock Tadgh Beirne was again immense, ripping the Chiefs to shreds at the breakdown before unfortunately departing with an injury. The away team were in the lead at the break, with a Don Armand smash-and-grab try to their name but the home team responded through the boot of Joey Carbery to earn a hard-fought win and European knockout progression once more. Despite Exeter’s best efforts they have failed to reach the quarterfinals again therefore for the 2nd consecutive season only one English team (Saracens of course) have advanced out of their respective pool: not good.
Castres score late to deny the Cherry and Whites the win
Gloucester rested key players in this dead rubber, but head coach Johan Ackermann would have been pleased with the performance of his youngsters and also first-teamers who have been struggling with form and injury, England hopefuls scrumhalf Ben Vellacott and centre Henry Trinder scored tries for their efforts. Veteran warhorse Matt Banahan was brutally physical, his hard-work setting up the two Cherry and White tries, one with a typical barrelling run, the other a quick offload which had put Trinder into space. Unfortunately, they couldn’t finish their European campaign on a high note as Tongan international Number 8 Maama Vaipulu powered his way over to give the home side the win at the death, meaning that the West Countrymen only had a losing bonus point to show for their efforts.
Toulouse hold onto win despite Bath comeback
Whilst it was a dead rubber, much attention, especially by England head coach Eddie Jones, would’ve been given to this match given the return of England and British and Irish Lion centre Jonathan Joseph returning after 9 months out from a nasty foot injury. Big, big Samoan Joe Tekori (who has definitely been one of the best locks in Europe this season alongside Itoje and Beirne) scored first for the home team before absolute chaos ensued as Antoine Dupont (another player of the tournament contender surely) dotted the ball down to extend the lead. Bath came back fighting in the second half with England absentees Zach Mercer and Semesa Rokoduguni crossing to level the scores. But replacement back Thomas Ramos converted a penalty to deliver the home side another close win.
Leinster beat hapless Wasps in Coventry
Only three seasons ago, the fortunes for these teams were very much reversed with Wasps flying high to the semifinals and Leinster battered out of the group stages. Now Leinster are back to being one of the giants of Europe while Wasps are financially on the verge of a meltdown and a large player turnover. Leinster never needed to step out of 3rd gear, with Wasps’ passive defence allowing Garry Ringrose to side-step over the tryline. Impressive hooker Sean Cronin, keeping the heat on Ireland captain Rory Best, scored tries on either side of half-time. While Noel Reid, who is rumoured to have been signed by Leicester Tigers, scored the away team’s bonus point. Wasps responded through England call-ups Nathan Hughes and Dan Robson as well as Marcus Watson but they never looked like seriously rattling the defending European champions and were always behind.
Here are the teams that have progressed to the Knockouts:
Top Seed – Saracens (England)
2nd Seed – Racing 92 (France)
3rd Seed – Leinster (Ireland)
4th Seed – Edinburgh (Scotland)
5th Seed – Munster (Ireland)
6th Seed – Ulster (Ireland)
7th Seed – Toulouse (France)
8th Seed – Glasgow (Scotland)
Meanwhile in the Challenge Cup
On Friday, Harlequins get the job done by grabbing a bonus-point victory away from home to qualify for the quarters, the recent England recalled Jack Clifford starring in a tryscoring, man of the match effort. Northampton Saints reached a cricket score in a whopping 111-3 annihilation of the Romanian Timosoara Saracens, young winger Ollie Sleightholme and scrumhalf Alex Mitchell grabbing four tries each. Clermont completed a perfect 30/30 points tally in Pool 1 with a 7-49 bonus point lashing of the Dragons, ex-Tiger Peter Betham and French winger Remy Grosso amongst the scorers. Benetton Treviso got a crucial 7-39 victory over French strugglers Grenoble, talisman winger Monty Ioane and abrasive flanker Sebastien Negri bagging tries.
And on Saturday, three Premiership sides also confirmed their place in the last 8 with Worcester edging Stade Français in an entertaining affair 36-31, promising prospect Ollie Lawrence on the scoresheet once more, Sale smashed Perpignan at home 39-10 with England call-up Chris Ashton extending his tournament lead on the tryscoring front. Bristol brought out the fireworks against the Russian Enisei-TSM at Ashton Gate in which there was a second century of the weekend with the scoreline 107-19, crikey. Connacht earnt a hard-fought bonus point win over Bordeaux to qualify as 6th seed. Pau beat the Ospreys to deny the Welshmen a place in the last 8. Finally, La Rochelle didn’t exactly get out of 2nd gear in a mediocre performance away to Zebre but still finished top of Pool 4.
Here are the 8 teams who have progressed to the Knockouts
Top Seed – Clermont Auvergne (France)
2nd Seed – La Rochelle (France)
3rd Seed – Sale Sharks (England)
4th Seed – Worcester Warriors (England)
5th Seed – Harlequins (England)
6th Seed – Connacht (Ireland)
7th Seed – Bristol Bears (England)
8th Seed – Northampton Saints (England)
Key Talking Points:
– Does the European Knockout format need addressing given that so many quarterfinalists in both tiers are facing opponents from the same pool?
– Are Munster receiving special media treatment (I think you know what I believe)?
– Why can’t away teams win quarterfinals in Europe?
– Player of the Tournament so far?