It’s all to play for in the second leg of the European Champions Cup Round of 16 over the Easter weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The aggregate equations are across the spectrum following last weekend’s exciting first-leg encounters, from Bristol having a slender one-point advantage over Sale to Leicester’s 19-point cushion over Clermont Auvergne.
The four highest-ranked qualifiers from each pool – Racing 92, Ulster, La Rochelle, Leinster, Leicester, Harlequins, Munster, and Bristol – have home advantage this time around. Some are in positions of power while others have it all to do if they’re to recover sufficiently to progress to the quarterfinals.
From Friday night’s opener in Dublin to Sunday afternoon’s closer in Paris, we’re in for a blockbuster weekend. The pick of the games takes place in Belfast, where defending champions Toulouse need a seven-point win over Ulster on Saturday night to continue their reign.
Leinster v Connacht
Friday, 15 April – 18:30
There are contrasting ways to look at Connacht’s gallant effort last weekend. On one hand, they punched above their weight to push Leinster close. Few expected it to be as tight as it was, and the 26-21 defeat will give them hope of doing the improbable.
On the other, they had home ground advantage and a golden opportunity when the vaunted visitors were down to 14 men in the latter stages and still weren’t able to spring the upset. Thus, look to Leinster to be more clinical, disciplined, and charged up in front of their fans to claim a more convincing win.
Bristol Bears v Sales Sharks
Friday, 15 April – 21:00
In what was a scrappy affair, European Player of the Year Semi Radradra provided the magic with a late try off the bench to snatch a 10-9 win for the Bears. Both teams were well below their best, leaving the sequel as an opportunity for one of them to seize the day.
With greater accuracy on the attack, Sale may well turn the tables as they created numerous try-scoring opportunities. However, having feasted on turnovers and shown more patience on the attack along with having home ground advantage this time around, Bristol should edge out another close win.
Harlequins v Montpellier
Saturday, 16 April – 13:30
Can Harlequins dig themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves? An unbeaten march through the pool stage went up in smoke in a first-half from hell that saw them trail 26-0 at the break.
Four second-half tries give them something to fight for in a 14-point deficit (40-26), but it’s too tall an order against the likes of Paul Willemse, Zach Mercer, and Cobus Reinach, while Montpellier also have world-class reinforcements such as Handre Pollard on the pine.
La Rochelle v Bordeaux
Saturday, 16 April – 16:00
Speaking of tall orders, Bordeaux are all but without a prayer after being soundly beaten in their backyard. They showed little in the 31-13 loss to suggest things will be different. It’s bound to go from bad to worse with Raymond Rhule and company set to treat their local fans.
Munster v Exeter Chiefs
Saturday, 16 April – 16:00
The psychological advantage the Chiefs carry into the contest is greater than the five-point lead. Not only did they overcome conceding two yellow cards in two minutes for their 13-8 win, but they were also inches away from scoring in the final play of the game, ultimately being held up over the line.
Toppling Munster at home, especially in a do-or-die clash, is a mammoth task, but Exeter ticked all the boxes in their spirited victory, which also showed how Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg elevates them to another level, so I’m tipping the England club to deliver a significant knockout blow.
Leicester Tigers v Clermont Auvergne
Saturday, 16 April – 18:30
Last Sunday’s tie showed the clear difference in class between these sides, the Tigers triumphing 29-10 despite playing the last quarter with 14 men after Harry Porter saw red for a high shot on Fritz Lee. After starting strong to lead at half-time and the gift red card, the way Clermont fell away in the second stanza points to another commanding win for the Gallagher Premiership log leaders.
Ulster v Toulouse
Saturday, 16 April – 21:00
Toulouse showed their champion mettle to make the best of a terrible situation. Sure, they dropped their home leg but limiting Ulster to a 26-20 win after losing Juan Cruz Mallia to a red card as early as the 11th minute will give them a world of confidence and the weather will allow the French club to play the fluid offloading game that caused their Irish counterparts so many problems.
Having experienced that flair, Ulster will likely look to stop them at the source. It may not be the lead they could and should’ve had, but six points are still a welcome buffer, especially if you employ a tight, grinding game where the clock immediately comes into consideration.
The hosts, for my money, have the physicality, tactical nous, and discipline to dictate the pace of the game and bring Toulouse’s reign to an early end.
Racing 92 v Stade Francais
Sunday, 17 April – 16:30
After gifting Racing 92 an early 12-point lead with a string of penalties, the focus for Stade Francais will be to get off to a better start. That, alone, won’t do, though. They’ll need to find a way to unlock Racing’s resolute defence after being kept tryless in their 22-9 defeat. Bank on Racing, who have all their bases covered, to advance comfortably.