Europe delivers mouth-watering games for knockout stages

Published Categorised as 2020-21, Editorial, ERCC, Ulster Rugby Tagged
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JANUARY 22: Rob Herring of Ulster and Etienne Falgoux of Clermont during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Ulster Rugby and ASM Clermont Auvergne at Kingspan Stadium on January 22, 2022 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The road to Marseille has been mapped out now for the remaining 16 teams in this season’s Heineken European Champions Cup.

For a second consecutive season Covid had stalked the premier club tournament, and while it played a part in each of the four rounds of the pool phase of the current instalment, it inadvertently helped produce one of the most dramatic final weekends of the competition.

For regular readers, you may recall at the outset of the competition, I said I felt there was perhaps not the same appetite for the European tournament pre-Covid.

Aside from forfeited matches and drawn match rulings due to the pandemic, there was perhaps a bigger appetite than I had thought.

The drama in the final round began on Friday night at The Twickenham Stoop, when English champions Harlequins denied Castres a place in the last 16, with another last gasp score.

And it was not until the final game on Sunday evening that the last qualifier to the knockout stages, Montpellier, was confirmed.

Throw into the mix a nail-biter in Paris where Stade Francais defeated Connacht in a thriller, landing a last kick of the match penalty to take eighth spot in Pool B by a one-point better points difference than Cardiff.

And defending champions Toulouse had the biggest sweat of the weekend when they had to concede to the Cardiff side due to Covid numbers within their squad.

One of the stand-out performances was that of Ulster Rugby. Four starts and four wins, three with bonus points, which secured them a crucial second spot in Pool A.

Yes, it may have been a nervy finish to the game against Clermont at a packed Kingspan Stadium, but the 34-31 win had come off the back of a dominant display for 70 minutes.

The adventurous young guns who had delivered in Franklin Gardens a week earlier, turned up again to complete the double over Clermont for the first time in European history.

A second seeding spot was crucial looking ahead, if Ulster can progress to the quarter-finals they will be guaranteed a home draw.

However, as I had highlighted previously, being successful does not always deliver the easier routes.

Dan McFarland’s charges’ rewards for winning all four games is a meeting with the defending champions Toulouse over the two-legged last round of 16.

Previous recent encounters have been close, but Ulster finished on the wrong side in both, home and away.

Ulster have certainly been one of the sides to stand out in the competition, but Toulouse will offer another tough test when the games are played the weekends of April 9 and 16.

And going away for the first of the two legs will present an added challenge. 

I am not convinced by this new format for the last round of 16, with the potential for the tie to be over after the first given the nature of this game.

However, when you look at the line-up, and it is mouth-watering, you hope there will be close affairs in the first hit out which will lead to more drama a week later for the return leg.

It is important to note that all four Irish Provinces made it through to the last 16 which is a huge positive for the IRFU.

And it also sets up a cracking all-Ireland encounter in the next round between Leinster and Connacht.

Leinster, who were forced to forfeit their away game to Montpellier due to Covid concerns, produced two huge results against Montpellier and Bath, scoring 153 points in the two games, to secure a top four finish in Pool B – Ulster can take a bit of delight in finishing above them!

Connacht’s place had been secured already before they played Stade Francais, and although disappointed to lose, going through to the knockout stages in the Champions Cup for the first time is a huge coup for the Westerners.

And they have enjoyed their successes over Leinster in the past, so this Provincial derby is certain to be an enthralling contest.

Munster finished third in Pool A after they brushed the challenge of Wasps aside at Thomond Park 45-7 and will now meet Exeter Chiefs.

Interestingly, should Ulster and Munster both win, they would meet in the quarter-finals and if you want to look further ahead, there is a potential all-Ireland semi-final on the cards if results go a certain way.

A bit of rugby to be played before that. 

Last Round of 16, over two legs

STADE FRANCAIS1RACING 92
TOULOUSE2ULSTER
BORDEAUX3LA ROCHELLE
CONNACHT 4LEINSTER
SALE5BRISTOL
EXETER6MUNSTER
MONTPELLIER7HARLEQUINS
CLERMONT8LEICESTER
FIRST ROUND MATCHES TO BE PLAYED 8/9/10 APRIL 2022, SECOND ROUND 15/16/17 APRIL 2022

QUARTER FINAL DRAWS

Highest ranked qualifier has home advantage

(1) S FRANCAIS/RACING 92A(5) BRISTOL/SALE
(7) HARLEQUINS/MONTPELLIERB(3) LA ROCHELLE/BORDEAUX
(2) ULSTER/TOULOUSEC(6) MUNSTER/EXETER
(8) LEICESTER/CLERMONTD (4) LEINSTER/CONNACHT
MATCHES TO BE PLAYED 6/7/8 MAY 2022

SEMI FINAL DRAWS

Highest ranked qualifier has home union advantage

WINNER OF AVWINNER OF B
WINNER OF CVWINNER OF D
MATCHES TO BE PLAYED 13/14/15 MAY

For now, it is back to the domestic competitions and of course, the Six Nations is only around the corner. February promises to be a bumper month!

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