Champions Cup: Five takeaways from the quarter-finals as French sides dominate yet again

·7-min read
 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Following the quarter-final action in the European Champions Cup, here’s our five takeaways from a memorable weekend.

France flying

After yet another thrilling weekend of European Champions Cup rugby, only four remain: La Rochelle, Leinster, Racing 92 and Toulouse, a testimony to the power of the Top 14 and a stark reminder of just how far ahead the French – and Leinster – are of the rest of European rugby right now.

Sure, Munster pushed Toulouse all the way, Sale Sharks held a half-time lead versus Racing and, although Leicester Tigers rallied in a committed second half performance, Leinster had blown them off the park in the first and never looked anything else other than winners.

There’s a mighty imbalance in club funding and local salary caps with the French clubs having something like double to spend to that of their PRL, WRU and SRU counterparts (Ireland operate a different model akin to central contracts) and that is starting to show. Next weekend it’s chastening to think that in the entire British Isles, in both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, there is not one top-flight rugby fixture taking place.

Nevertheless, this is not a poke at the excellence of French rugby. more so a reminder that the Premiership and URC are both big unwieldy tournaments with a lot of deadwood in them, with the former handicapped by a salary cap that appears to be designed to prevent successful superclubs emerging.

One thing is clear from this year’s fixtures; the Premiership and others need to adapt and to change their offering if they’re to compete at the very highest level.

Thriller in Aviva

When it comes to defensive grit, Munster wrote the book.

Driven by 40,000 voices at their temporary home in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, their display of rush defence, breakdown competition and set-piece disruption came so close to kicking out the 2021 champions Toulouse in a match that was eventually decided by rugby’s own take on the penalty shootout, where Ben Healy (twice) and Conor Murray missed as Toulouse’s kickers held their nerve to win the shootout 4-2.

Despite the magnificent weather, this was a match where inches of gain and breakdown competition defined the outcome. Peter O’Mahony and his favourite acolyte Jack O’Donoghue were mesmerising as they put in a display of loose forward brilliance around the ruck and in defence that was only repelled by the tireless Francois Cros for Toulouse, who spent the afternoon clearing, tidying and clawing Toulouse back into something near parity.

For all their glitterati in the backline, Toulouse still look a side either jaded or misfiring, possibly as a result of the monumental international shifts put in by many of their stars in the Six Nations.

Munster will rue the fact they let slip a 10-point lead with 13 minutes of the second half to go, as five-time champions Toulouse were forced to find a late score to turn the game in their favour, just as they did in the last round against Ulster.

Level after 80 mins at 24-24, the sides had chances to win the game deep into extra time but Thomas Ramos and Healy pulled their drop-goals wide as 40,000 spectators inside Dublin’s Aviva Stadium were treated to a contest that will live long in the memory.

Wexford Road

Leicester Tigers hosted Leinster in a match that would have been a first round knockout win had it been a boxing contest. It was all over bar the shouting after 30 mins, as Leinster’s Irish half-backs, supported by Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan and James Lowe, ran riot around the wide channels, working at a pace that seemed a completely different level to that of the hosts.

However, the scrum battle was one for the purists as two world-class front rows went hammer and tongs at each other for a full 80 mins, with Ellis Genge again giving the great man of Wexford Tadhg Furlong a torrid time, whilst Dan Cole reminded us all that he’s still the best scrummaging tighthead in England. Although Leinster won convincingly, Leicester’s second half performance saw them rally to win that period 14-3 as the visitors took their foot off the gas, but by then it was a case of too little, too late, as Leinster’s 15 internationals showed just how far ahead of the rest they are as a team right now.

Genge’s fire on the pitch accompanied him to the press conference, where he stood almost punch drunk like a boxer, fiercely defiant and frustrated – and treated the assembled journalists to a brooding and angry summary of the match. His passion and his pride were as evident as his frustrations. Welford Road will miss him next year.

Cat on the mat

Paris’ La Défense Arena is an absolutely unique venue. The cacophony of noise and intense colour generated by the indoor arena is a sensory overload and, after trailing at half-time, Racing added to that feeling of overload as they produced a display of audacious and daring rugby orchestrated by the coolest cat in Paris, Finn Russell, supported with virtuoso solo performances from Teddy Thomas and young scrum-half, Nolann Le Garrec.

For the first half, Sale were outstanding as they smashed and crashed in a style forged in the hard rugby of South Africa, punctuated by some individual brilliance in the shape of England’s Manu Tuilagi, and at half time, it seemed they might achieve the impossible, as they led 10-6.

However, the unique nature of La Défense’s surface is something that Racing understand. In a blink of an eye, Thomas produced a kick and chase that had TMO Joy Neville reaching for a protractor to check his angle near the touchline, followed by a near miracle volley, dribble and chase by Russell that was fuelled by a little luck, but created by the impish belief that personifies the play of the brilliant Scottish fly-half.

41-22 was the final analysis and in the end, the scoreline flattered the hosts whilst failing to reward Sale for a performance, especially in the first half, that was a lot closer than the numbers suggested.

Coast to coast

Over in La Rochelle, the south coast of France met the west coast as the hosts disposed of visitors Montpellier in clinical fashion.

Dany Priso’s rumbustious effort after 12 minutes saw his mobility leave Montpellier for dead as he crashed over for the opening try, but the day belonged to the veteran Victor Vito; a man who became a world champion after 33 Tests for New Zealand, but eschewed further caps and his beloved Hurricanes in favour of a new life in France. His touches are sublime and it was he who released Priso for the opener, and then followed it up with a finish of brilliance on the right wing to cross for a second after 22 minutes. Vito is hanging up his size 12s at the end of the season and success in Europe is very high on his personal agenda.

Speaking of back-rows, Zach Mercer again reminded Eddie Jones and any watching England fans of his continued improvement. He offers a point of difference in any back-row – the ability to support at pace in the wide channels and a fine nose for the try line, as evidenced by another try in the 53rd minute, his third of his European campaign. In a weekend that was pretty dismal for English interest, Mercer was a bright individual light in the gloom of collective Champions Cup failure for the Premiership clubs.

READ MORE: Alex Sanderson believes English teams are hindered by lower salary cap

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