Munster and Chiefs in the ‘Battle of Thomond’
The most hotly-anticipated match of the weekend and a knock-out clash in all but name, Exeter Chiefs travelled to Limerick in Round Six looking to complete a stunning turnaround and secure qualification to the knock-out stages. No side in the history of the Champions Cup had ever managed to qualify from a pool having failed to win any of their opening three matches, yet Rob Baxter’s men found themselves heading over to Thomond Park knowing a bonus-point win or victory with a winning margin of more than seven points would see them leap-frog pool leaders Munster and seal an unlikely quarter-final place. For the hosts, the equation was simpler with anything but a defeat good enough to see them top the pool and make it to the last eight.
What followed was an epic battle of test-match intensity, if not execution as the sheer ferocity of tackling and speed of play ensured both sides made plenty of errors with turnovers aplenty throughout the match. Any hope from the home side that their visitors would be put off by the raucous atmosphere generated by over 25,000 supporters was soon put to bed, with Chiefs’ stars Jack Nowell and Henry Slade playing a prominent role in a frenetic start to the match. The fast start to the match was soon punctuated when Munster fly-half Joey Carbery stepped up to dispatch the first points of the match from the kicking tee after six minutes but it wasn’t long before the Chiefs hit back. Having kicked a penalty to the corner for a five-metre line-out the Exeter forwards went to work with one of their trademark line-out mauls, that despite some spirited Munster defending eventually resulted in Exeter back-row forward Don Armand going over for the first try of the match, which was duly converted by Joe Simmonds to give the Chiefs a four-point lead. Munster’s Carbery reduced the arrears with another successful penalty, but with neither side giving an inch in attack or defence an absorbing first-half ended with the visitors leading 7-6.
As the second-half resumed, Exeter knew there was still work to be done as they went hunting for the try that could see them sneak through to the last eight. Despite this it was Munster who dominated the early stages and following some neat link-up play in midfield between Carbery and wing Keith Earls the hosts were soon down in the opposition 22, where the Exeter defence managed to scramble well to turnover the ball and clear their lines. Going into the final quarter, and it was Exeter’s time to turn the screw as their Australian scrum-half Nic White showed all his international class to spot a gap out wide and steer a kick through deep into Munster’s 22. Having initially secured their own line-out ball and cleared their lines, the hosts were soon back under pressure and after being penalised a kick to the corner saw Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie gifted a throw five metres out. With both defences on top, Exeter knew a try here could be the difference in sealing a quarter-final spot but Munster replacement Billy Holland produced the steal of the match to nick Exeter’s ball at the line-out and with that Exeter’s big chance had been and gone, with Joey Carbery further sticking the knife in by denying Rob Baxter’s side a famous win by nailing his third penalty kick of the match to give Munster a slender win in a truly-compelling match.
The win secured secured Munster’s passage to the quarter-finals as Pool winners and despite missing out on a home quarter-final with players like Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray they will be a mightily-tough proposition for any side in the knock-out stages. For Exeter, although they came up agonisingly short Rob Baxter will be proud of his side’s efforts in the bear-pit that is Thomond Park, with not many sides going over to Limerick and rocking the hosts as they did for large periods and with the addition of Stuart Hogg next season they could become a real force in Europe over the coming years.
Edinburgh add some steel to the substance
The Round Six action kicked off in Scotland on Friday night, as the surprise package of this season’s competition Edinburgh, went out to secure a home quarter-final against a dangerous Montpellier side. With the Scots leading Pool 5 by just three points from their final round opponents it was a winner-takes-all encounter at Murrayfield. Having recovered from a narrow defeat in round one to the French side, Richard Cockerill’s side had responded in style by reeling off four straight wins – including a famous win at former champions Toulon – to storm to the top of the group and knew another home victory would seal a last-eight spot. Despite this Edinburgh knew there was no room for error and that any sort of defeat would see Montpellier overtake them at the top of the Pool.
So often the great entertainers in Europe this season, given what was at stake this was not the night for expansive no-limits rugby from the home side and they did well to dominate the early proceedings and take the points when on offer as fly-half Jaco van der Walt kicked three penalty shots at goal. However the visitors hadn’t come to roll over and on the stroke of half-time they hit back with a try from Jacques Du Plessis which was converted by Ruan Pienaar to leave the game in the balance at the break with Edinburgh leading 9-7. Starting from where they left off Montpellier soon went on the attack in the opening stages of the second-half and when a driving maul eventually resulted in a penalty being awarded, Pienaar stepped up to kick his side into the lead for the first time in the match. With their Champions Cup hopes on the line now was the time for Cockerill’s men to step up and hold their nerve, and they duly responded by taking the game back to their opponents. Sustained pressure from the hosts saw the French side penned back into their own half and the pressure soon told with van der Walt restoring Edinburgh’s slender lead with another penalty kick. With the game still very much in the balance the forwards went to work in barrelling down towards the Montpellier try-line and when a rolling maul was illegally brought down close to the line, Edinburgh No.9 Henry Pyrgos used the advantage to pop the ball up to winger Darcy Graham to score in the corner and with it seal the win and top spot for the hosts.
Having thrilled supporters in this season’s competition with their cavalier style of attacking rugby from the likes of Viliame Mata, Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham, it was the forwards who displayed their strengths at Murrayfield. Graham may have added to his burgeoning reputation with another try but the tackle count from forwards WP Nel, Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist was exceptionally high as they put their bodies on the line for the win. With back-rowers Jamie Ritchie and Mata also fronting up with their carrying game, this Edinburgh side showed they can adapt to different game situations and win ugly – to go with the style they showed in previous weeks – and they will be a threat when the competition resumes in the knock-out rounds.
Racing win in style again but is it enough to go all the way?
The Racing rock-stars were once again out in force this weekend as they put the Scarlets to the sword in Paris to secure a home quarter-final. With a backline containing international stars including Finn Russell, Simon Zebo and Juan Imhoff it has been no surprise that the Parisians have been such a joy to watch in attack. That continued once again as the ‘Great Entertainers’ came out on top in a thrilling try-fest at Paris La Defense Arena, outscoring their opponents six tries to three to ensure they qualified for the knock-out stages as the No.2 seed behind Saracens.
With Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets side arriving in Paris with no chance of qualification, the shackles were off for the Welsh side who themselves are renowned for the expansive rugby they play. For the hosts a first defeat of the competition in Ulster in round five meant that a win was needed to secure top spot in to pool, and nerves seemed to get the better of the French side in a topsy-turvy first-half that saw the lead change hands several times before the Scarlets eventually went in at the break 16-15 ahead. The second-half saw much of the same with wingers Steff Evans and Simon Zebo trading scores but as the game entered the final quarter Racing pulled away through tries from Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Iribaren before Zebo sealed the win with his second of the match and secured Racing a home quarter-final.
With such an arsenal of attacking weapons in their armoury, there is no doubt that Racing go into the knock-out stages as one of the favourites. Runners-up in two of the last three seasons, many believe it will be third-time lucky for the French side especially with that extra sprinkling of star-dust provided by the additions of Finn Russell and Simon Zebo to what was an already exciting backline. As one of the top-scorers in this season’s competition, stopping this Racing attack will be the biggest challenge for any opponents in the knock-out rounds especially at their unique home which at times this season has resembled more of a rock-and-roll concert than a rugby stadium. Yet Racing also possess the worst defensive record of any of the five Pool winners with fifteen tries conceded in six matches. Such porous defence in the knock-out stages is likely to prove fatal to any title prospects, with many knock-out matches tight low-scoring affairs more akin to test rugby standards. In losing to Ulster in round five, Racing succumbed to a 26-22 defeat despite out-scoring their opponents four tries to three, and would have won the match if it were not for three missed conversions. In the pool stages where there if often a gulf in class between some opponents, such inaccuracies and profligacy can be gotten away with but the same can not be said for knock-out rugby where factors such as defensive prowess and goal-kicking become much more important. In recent final defeats against Saracens and Leinster, Racing have been undone by their ability to come out on top in tight matches and from evidence seen this season the question of whether Racing have the nerve to close out these matches is still unclear. With home advantage they may well blow teams away in similar fashion as they have done in the pool stages and they are likely to be in the title shake-up once again, but do they have the nous to go all the way?
By Jon Davies