Saracens qualify, whilst other English teams fall agonisingly short
It could have been worse for English clubs in Europe this season. There was a very real possibility that none would be in the knock-out stages, yet one remains. Reigning champions Saracens may have qualified as the third best runner-up, but they have saved the blushes of the Premiership and will find themselves battling for the trophy once again. They stormed to a 62-14 win over Northampton (a third trouncing in three meetings this season) to finish second in the pool behind Clermont, who had knocked out Ospreys with a 24-7 win.
The Londoners will go on to meet Leinster, who made sure of their number one status and favourites tag as they went 100% in the pool stages with a 23-14 victory in the south of France against Montpellier. Whilst Sarries are up against it, they will be relishing a contest against such opposition in what is sure to be the pick of the quarters. In the same pool as the boys in blue, Exeter had a great chance of progression, but failed to get the required win over a Glasgow side that were, until then, yet to win in the competition this season. The Scots welcomed back Stuart Hogg, who inspired them to a 28-21 triumph.
In Pool 5, Bath needed a few things to go their way and most things did. They registered a seven try, 47-28 success in Treviso, they finished with enough points to beat most other second placed teams. They just needed Scarlets to beat Toulon and not concede a bonus point. Unfortunately, the Welsh side failed to win comfortably enough (30-27) for Bath to climb above Toulon into second in the pool. Scarlets do become the first Welsh side in six years to reach the knockouts an, with their brand of rugby, will be confident of troubling La Rochelle when they host the French in the quarters.
It was also a case of what-could-have-been for Wasps. They did all that they could this weekend by beating Ulster and leapfrogging them into second in the pool. Four tries and a 26-7 win was not enough and they will surely be rueing their inability to see off Quins last week. The Londoners lost this week to La Rochelle 16-7 despite putting in a resilient performance.
Two sides managed to progress from the already-eliminated Leicester’s pool. The East Midlanders 23-20 loss to Racing also contributed to Wasps’ elimination as the French side finished 2 points higher and meet Clermont in the knockouts. Meanwhile, Munster ensured a home quarter against Toulon having beaten Castres 48-3.
Falcons among favourites for Challenge Cup
Newcastle will be seeded second for the quarters of the Challenge Cup, where they will face Brive, after stretching their perfect record in Russia, beating Enisei 33-19. Neither Dragons nor Bordeaux managed to escape the group in second place as the Welsh won 33-17.
Cardiff won their group as they triumphed 21-18 at Lyon, but they must travel to Edinburgh for the next round. Sale slipped 28-21 in Toulouse and consequentially were eliminated.
For Gloucester, it was a failed mission to top the pool and secure a home quarter final. They lost to Pau at home 34-24. The French are top seeds and host Stade Francais, whilst the cherry and whites have to travel to Connacht. In the same group, Zebre were 38-30 victors over Agen.
Stade had snuck through after their vital 17-10 win over Edinburgh, stealing second place from London Irish, whose 24-17 edging of Krasny Yar was not enough.
Connacht’s 50-14 hiding of Oyonnax made sure of hosting a knock-out game, whilst Worcester couldn’t progress due to their 33-7 defeat at Brive.
Villain of the week
The weather had a horrible effect on some of the games, with kick offs being moved and venues even having to be changed. It meant teams like Castres already knew they were out when they took to the field and Worcester had to deal with even more travelling for a must-win game.
Hero of the week
I know we have become English focussed on the blog, but I’m going to give it to the collective effort of Leinster, who made it through one of the trickiest pools with a 100% record. With their home quarter already in the bag, they could have rested a few players for their journey to Montpellier, but it was a mark of their quality that they came through with yet another win. Their matchup against Saracens is mouth-watering.
Try of the week
Kini Murimurivalu’s effort for La Rochelle was a masterclass in how to exploit gaps in tight spaces. They spread the ball wide, found the smallest of gaps, used brute force and timed their hands to perfection for a well worked team try.
Which players stood out in the group stages?
Who is most likely to claim a rare away win in a quarter final?
What does this European situation mean for the Six Nations? Are England going to struggle? Will the Irish be favourites?
by Joe Large