It’s all about drawing first blood in the historic two-legged European Champions Cup Round of 16 this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
For the first time, Europe’s top-flight club competition’s Round of 16 will be played over two legs, with aggregate scores over the two contests deciding which eight teams progress to the quarterfinals.
The four highest-ranked qualifiers from each pool – Racing 92, Ulster, La Rochelle, Leinster, Leicester, Harlequins, Munster, and Bristol – will have home advantage in next weekend’s second-leg matches. Therefore, the underdogs will be determined to strike this weekend to give themselves a shot of going on to knockout their fancied foes.
Four-time winners Leinster kick off the action against familiar foes Connacht in an all-Irish affair in Galway on Friday night. Defending champions Toulouse host Ulster in the match of the weekend, while a clash of former champions will see the Exeter Chiefs cross swords with Munster.
It’s a stacked line-up up to Pool B table-toppers Leicester Tigers’ away assignment against Clermont Auvergne on Sunday afternoon.
Where they qualified:
1: Racing 92 (19)
2: Ulster (19)
3: La Rochelle (16)
4: Leinster (15)
5: Sale Sharks (12)
6: Exeter Chiefs (11)
7: Montpellier (10)
8: Clermont Auvergne (8)
1: Leicester Tigers (19)
2: Harlequins (19)
3: Munster (18)
4: Bristol Bears (17)
5: Connacht (10)
6: Bordeaux (8)
7: Toulouse (7)
8: Stade Francais (7)
Connacht v Leinster
Friday, 8 April – 21:00
Of all the possible last 16 match-ups, Connacht would’ve wondered how they wound up with the most dreaded of derbies. Leinster have big-brothered them since the birth of their rivalry and their United Rugby Championship clashes this season were no different.
Leo Cullen’s charges followed up a 47-19 win at home with a 45-8 rout on the road just two weeks ago. An impressive 34-19 victory over Munster last weekend showed they’re entering playoff mode and saw them move 10 points clear at the top of the URC log.
They’ll have little trouble trouncing an outclassed Connacht.
Bordeaux v La Rochelle
Saturday, 9 April – 14:00
La Rochelle cruised into the last 16, winning three of their four fixtures to finish third in Pool A, while a solitary win in a Covid-effected campaign was enough for Bordeaux to sneak through.
However, their TOP 14 cliffhanger last weekend showed there’s precious little separating the sides. Raymond Rhule scored one of La Rochelle’s two tries but it was Ihaia West who was the hero as he slotted a last-gasp penalty goal to snatch a 16-15 win at the very venue where they’ll renew hostilities on Saturday.
Aside from having cooler heads at the death, the fact that they kept Bordeaux tryless earned La Rochelle my backing in what should be another nailbiter.
Sale Sharks v Bristol Bears
Saturday, 9 April – 14:00
The timing of this tie couldn’t have been more perfect for Sale as Bristol are in a serious slump. It’s been a rough Gallagher Premiership campaign overall for the Bears, who’re languishing in 10th place – five below Sale – and they’re entering this crunch clash on a three-match losing skid.
The Sharks, with their plethora of Springbok stars, are tough to beat in their backyard, which makes this one of those instances where the home ground advantage is huge, so much so that I see it proving decisive.
Toulouse v Ulster
Saturday, 9 April – 16:15
Ulster will be hoping for better fortunes in France after enduring the unluckiest of South African tours. A now admitted referee blunder cost them a win over the Stormers and they had more big calls go against them in their 34-16 loss to the Bulls last weekend.
In hindsight, their bad luck probably started with this match-up. Toulouse might’ve had a tumultuous pool campaign, but facing the defending champions is hardly a reward for Ulster having finished second in Pool A with a perfect 4-0 record.
Both of Toulouse’s scheduled home games in the pool stage were cancelled due to Covid protocols, so this will be their first home fixture as reigning European champions, and to maximise the occasion, they’ve moved the match to the 33,000-capacity Le Stadium.
They’ll be fuelled by their sea of supporters while Ulster will be feeling the travel factor. Therefore, I’m tipping Toulouse to clinch a cracker.
Stade Francais v Racing 92
Saturday, 9 April – 18:30
These French clubs are worlds apart. If their qualifying places didn’t emphasise that enough – Racing 92 topping Pool A and Stade Francais taking the final spot in Pool B – last weekend’s head-to-head battle in the TOP 14 certainly did as Racing 92 roared to a 53-20 win.
Stade Francais fight them, they showed it to trail just 15-13 at halftime, but the second half showed they don’t have the staying power to keep up with Laurent Travers’ troops.
Exeter Chiefs v Munster
Saturday, 9 April – 18:30
An emphatic 42-22 win over Bath last weekend was a timely confidence-booster for Exeter, whereas Munster’s aforementioned 34-19 loss at home to Leinster was the third in their last four and left them with more questions than answers.
The Chiefs have been inconsistent but they have momentum on their side and are another team that grows an extra arm and leg at home. They won both their pool games on home soil decisively – smashing Montpellier 42-6 and the Glasgow Warriors 52-17 – and four of their last five Gallagher Premiership home games, Intel that indicates they should edge it.
Montpellier v Harlequins
Sunday, 10 April – 14:00
Montpellier’s rather fortunate to be in the last 16. They were walloped 42-6 by Exeter and 89-7 by Leinster but were awarded a win after their other scheduled clash with Leinster was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak in the Irish club, which meant a 37-26 home win over Exeter saw them through.
Harlequins, in contrast, are one of the four remaining unbeaten teams, finishing second in Pool B while also sitting third in the Gallagher Premiership. With Montpellier having a few key players to call on, they’ll make Quins work.
However, with heavy hitters like Marcus Smith, the top points-scorer following the pool stage, and Andre Esterhuizen along with better cohesion, the visitors should prevail.
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers
Sunday, 10 April – 16:15
Despite only earning the last qualifying spot in Pool A, the fact that Clermont Auvergne pushed Ulster close in both of their clashes (33-28 and 34-31) hints at their dark horse potential and suggests that this home fixture against Pool B table-toppers should be a thriller.
Leicester Tigers tore through the pool stage to finish unbeaten and have been the apex predators in the Gallagher Premiership as well, sitting pretty with an eight-point cushion over second-placed Saracens. It won’t be easy, but the English club are such a well-oiled machine that they should come away with the win.