Best of the Weekend: Edinburgh secure home quarterfinal

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?

By Jacob Bassford (add me on Twitter @jacob_bassford and subscribe to my Youtube channel @FlyingG_Sports)

38 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Edinburgh secure home quarterfinal

  1. Bit harsh on the Chiefs (and Munster) in this piece, Jacob? ‘Dire’? Yes it wasn’t exactly freeflowing, two defences that were far too committed for that (and yes they’re ‘forwards-dominated’, but they were both hardly lacking in the backs; Carberry, Nowell, Slade, Earls, Conway, Cordero, etc) – but it was absolutely compelling to watch. Chiefs came d**n near a famous win, and had the chance for the 8pt margin in the 72min until Billy Holland made the read of the match and, ultimately, sealed the QF place with that line-out steal.
    There’s no denying Exeter missed a trick this year, losing at home to Glaws crippled their chances, but going to Thomond to play an in-form and full-strength Munster and only going down by 2pts (and with more than a sniff of winning it) does not, in my mind, deserve to be dismissed so bluntly. Plenty of teams over the years have come out of that bearpit mauled half to death.
    There is absolutely a point to be made that Sarries are the only English side through, but all the same, there are some seriously heavyweight teams alongside Exeter and the other Prem sides that won’t be troubling the QFs (Montpellier springs to mind) – sometimes, it happens that way. Baxter is big on learning lessons from every game, win or lose, and so providing Exeter do so – and likewise the other Prem sides – then next year should be a different story.

    1. agree wholeheartedly with this comment. the game was intense and high pressured. sure players lost their touch at some crucial moments but the contest was compelling and brutal. i loved it.

      1. SJ, ‘loved it’ with 1 try? Something fundamentally wrong with both attacks, surely. 1 dimensional, ltd rugby cannot be the way to success.

        1. How do you define success DP? I loved the intensity of the game, the atmosphere created by some of the finest supporters in sport, let alone rugby and the will of the players to go to the well over extended phase play. Success isn’t down to number of tries scored. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder , I am very happy to leave you with the try fest that would come from Crusaders vs The Sunwolves and all the ‘success’ that entails. I do know which competition wins in the commercial stakes though…

          1. SJ, success is having a winning style of play which maximises producing results. Tries are worth more points. Would you rather more or less points are scored? Picking an isolated S Rugby mismatch with the top v bottom team proves little. You prefer yr own, fine, but it’s a flawed model, unless you just prefer yr version of ‘beauty’.

            1. Saracens are playing well because their balancing both a forward dominated game and an attacking style, that’s because their smart, it’s what Ackermann is trying to do at Gloucester. Wasps are suffering because they’re not adapting their game well enough and their attacking capability is no longer good enough to paper over the cracks of their defensive frailties.

              1. Wasps are suffering mainly because they no longer have Jimmy Gopperth and Cipriani in tandem and have been missing Launchbury for most of the season, and players like Daly and Le Roux have not stepped up to the plate and taken responsibility. They look like a club in disarray at present.

            2. I enjoy seeing points scored but I can equally enjoy the contest and occasion without them. I’d argue that you too have picked an isolated game to press home your point about … tries… points… success, so I am merely doing the same thing to counter. You call it flawed, why? Because Ireland and England haven’t won back to back World Cups? Of course I’d love England to be world champions but rugby is a sport that I enjoy every weekend and this isn’t totally reliant on what happens once every four years.

    2. Totally agree VJ. Absolutely riveting game which proved that you don´t need 60 points to make for a fascinating match. Interesting to see Nowell at full back again.
      Moment of the weekend was undoubtedly Stockdale sending Johnny May first one way and then the other while standing virtually still before burning him off by a mile. Brilliant to watch and completely uncoachable.
      If I was EJ I would be a worried man after this weekend. Of his likely team, Ben Youngs is in terrible form, slowing the game when he should be giving quick ball and kicking poorly. Tuilagi looks a long way from ready for a recall. He still looks powerful but I am not convinced he has recovered the fairly limited pace he had a few years ago, and his running lines suggest someone still trying to find their feet. Launchbury got hurt in the first ten minutes, Shields didn´t even start and Hughes still looks way short of international class. Farrell looks as if he will struggle to make the Ireland game. On the plus side, Robson is running into some sort of form and Itoje is in good nick.

      1. Kindly define ‘backwards’? They certainly haven’t moved ‘forwards’ in Europe, but to suggest they’re getting actively worse I disagree with completely.
        Baxter’s approach, and his game philosophy, are some of his strongest attributes and they are the reason why Exeter is now a Premiership heavyweight. If he says the Chiefs will learn from this year and use it to achieve their European dreams too, I believe him.

        1. Well, in 2016 they were a stunning Piatau finish from reaching the semifinals, in 2017 they failed to qualify with 12 points, a slightly better account with 15 points but again failed to qualify, being especially poor and dire in Ireland and at Scotstoun, finally this year they finished slightly lower on 14 points, drawing then losing at home to a team who also failed to qualify. Those stats are speaking for themselves.

          1. Respectfully disagree. Chiefs played brilliantly in that run that led to the Piutau try, but still only benefited from a Parra brain fade for Clermont as they failed to get a losing bonus point. Which is why the following season was a drop – Clermont came prepared for Sandy Park the second time around. Last year, Glasgow finally showed up in the final round (a returning Hogg was exceptional) and yes, Exeter were disappointing in being unable to handle the heat when the chips were down. It’s why I was so pleased to see the Chiefs response this year, particularly against Munster; this year, instead of beating themselves, it took a typically epic Munster do-or-die attitude to deny the Chiefs, with everything on the line. It may still be failure, but there was progress on show. The lessons they will hopefully have learned from this year? Don’t just expect it to happen, and don’t let the expectation warp you into playing a different game. The moment they stopped trying too hard (2nd match vs Glaws), they looked like a Champions Cup knockout side. And that is why the results do NOT, in my mind, ‘speak for themselves’. How many times have match reports said the result doesn’t tell the whole story?
            Chiefs have yet to take the big step forward. But you can still see the evolution. So saying they’re going ‘backwards’ is just not true.

            (As a final note: the ‘especially poor and dire’ match in Ireland vs Leinster was the one where they led the champs-to-be until the 65th minute, wasn’t it? Leinster’s closest match of the tournament until the final. I was watching it, and yes I was frustrated Exeter become error-strewn and couldn’t finish the job, but honestly Leinster’s ability to squeeze the comeback out was exceptional. As you say, clearly a ‘dire’ Chiefs performance…)

            1. (Ok, so on a reread that last comment came across very PA and I’m sorry if it was read as such; it was intended tongue-in-cheek!)

          1. Sorry Jacob, you’ve just agreed with Don about Baxter having been in the Premiership too long to talk about learning, yet further down this same comments section, you’re saying that George Ford will learn from his lack of drop goal, despite the fact that George Ford has been playing in the Premiership about as long as Baxter and the Chiefs (give or take the 2010 season). How do you want to play it?

            For the record, I agree with you re:Ford – yes, he will learn from it. Because we all keep learning from our experiences. Is it frustrating that the Chiefs are still trying to learn how to crack Europe? Undoubtedly. But learning as a group (the holy trinity of players, coaches, and the general team ethos and character) takes time and is an evolutionary process. The fact that Baxter always talks about the learning process shows just how sound his game philosophy is. If he were sitting behind it as an excuse, then criticism would be fully justified. But he doesn’t; when he says the team will learn, he goes away with the team, and they learn. 9 times out of 10, you see the results within a matter of matches. Which is why I still see Europe for Baxter and the Chiefs firmly as a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.

            1. VJ. So when Jones (probably) leaves the England job after the WC, would you be happy to see Baxter take over then?

              1. Funnily enough, no. Partly because I’d selfishly like him to stay where he’s doing such a great job, but mainly because he’d need time to bed in, given the patient methodology he uses. And I don’t see the RFU (or the fans) being particularly keen on the idea that England would be in transition for a few years, even if they came back far stronger for it. I’m confident he would be good enough, but whether he would be ‘good’ enough quickly enough to avoid the axe is something I’m not so confident on – coaching is getting progressively more trigger-happy these days, after all.

              1. A lot was going through his mind at that moment in time… trying to eye opportunities, thinking about the time, the score and the Six Nations was probably in the back of his mind too, unfortunately the drop-goal is deemed as such an old-fashioned and also often poorly executed manoeuvre that people don’t tend to think about it until it’s all too late.

                1. The point I’m trying to make is that, regardless of experience levels, everyone is continually learning – and also that learning from one’s mistakes is so often overlooked as a source of positive growth. Players, coaches, teams, all need experience to learn from and develop – and sometimes this can mean that they appear to underwhelm in the unforgiving public eye. As long as they do learn from their mistakes and demonstrate that progression in future, they are stronger for the experience. And arguably that applies to both Ford and his drop-goal (or absence of) and the Chiefs and their European campaign this year. Having a decade of experience makes that no less valid than if you are fresh to the game. So Baxter has every right to say he (and the Chiefs) are still learning – and there is no shame on Ford either.

  2. Forgot to mention Daly who looks out of sorts and devoid of confidence. Before the autumn series I would have said you have to play him at 13, but at present I wouldn´t have him in the squad.

  3. Munster-Exeter was absolutely riveting. It was full bore from first to last, with every meter fiercely contested. I loved it.
    Saracens had an extra level to move up to, which saw them move away from Glasgow.
    Leicester should be kicking themselves for failing to convert breaks and time in the opposition 22 into points. That was a game they had the winning of.
    Decent efforts from Bath and Gloucester.
    Wasps never looked like winners. Leinster were rarely troubled and won very comfortably.

    1. Steve, Munster v Exeter was surely rivetingly boring, ineffective rugby. To praise such R1, dire, grindingly ‘comfortable’ rugby perhaps epitomises a fundamental flaw in the comprehension of NH game. That is the lack of ability to score tries, which also exposes the lack ability to score (more) points. It may entertain you, but it would worry me that ‘full bore’ quantity seems more important than substance.

      1. Don, Think you’re reading too much into one game. I like to see high skill, tries and rapid scoring but I also like games that are physical, technical, strategically interesting and played at all out commitment with very small margins becoming decisive. Thankfully our game is such that it can produce both and all points in between.

        1. Well Steve we are discussing 1 CUP game. I responded in kind to yr comments re same. It’s not a ? of what you, or even I, like to see, it’s a ? of effective rugby. 1 try in this game wasn’t effective rugby. When it comes to Cup rugby, almost all the English have been ineffective. 3 yrs ago the situation was different. England had 5 1/4 & 3 semi finalists! You’re generalsing with yr ‘all points between’ comment. The reality is that England has fallen of the stage in Europe, so how’s that ‘reading too much into 1game’?

      2. Both the teams in question scored tries for fun in the previous week; Exeter have scored 50 tries in 12 matches and head the tryscoring for the Premiership, Munster have 53 in 13 and are second only to Leinster in the Pro14. There’s no lack of attacking ability on either side. The fact that two teams that usually score so many tries couldn’t break through in one individual game does NOT mean they are incapable, R1 teams. If they are unable to break through, it says a massive amount about the extraordinary defence on show that night, in a game where both refused to back down and where both knew the first to blink would lose. It may not be flashy or much fun for a neutral, but it is still compelling in its own right.

        1. VJ, you’ve been @ ESPN again haven’t you? The stats you offer up don’t mention the strength of opposition, whether the tries were scored by the fwds or through the backs & which competitions they were within. Teams’ stats can look more positive, depending on some of my aforementioned factors, but, in the Cup, certainly in the game under discussion & @ that stage of the comp, when it nearly fatally mattered, Munster didn’t score too many ‘tries for fun’!

    2. Leicester will be kicking themselves, Ford should’ve gone for the drop-goal at the end, but I’m sure he’ll learn from that, been very impressive as Leicester captain this month.

      1. I think in general he is playing well, but he always looks a better player with Harrison inside him, which is quite worrying from England´s point of view.


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