Champions Cup: Five takeaways from Round-of-16 second legs as home and away aggregate matches are a success

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

Following the second legs of the Round-of-16 clashes played across Europe, here’s our five takeaways from a memorable Champions Cup weekend.

France profit, England and Ireland remain

With the strength of French rugby right now it seems apt that four of the Top 14 sides remain in the competition; an Antoine Dupont inspired Toulouse overcame a powerful showing by Ulster to take the aggregate tie by the slimmest of margins in a thriller at the Kingspan Stadium, whilst Montpellier needed a missed Marcus Smith conversion to take them through by the same margin. With La Rochelle and Racing 92 coasting home with big wins, they’ll be joined by Leicester Tigers, Sale, Munster and Leinster.

One point we can take with us; home and away aggregate matches are absolute thrillers and EPCR must be congratulated for this part of the 2021/22 format – it’s been two back-to-back weekends of fantastic rugby and fine margins.

English interest

It comes as no surprise that two of the best packs in the Premiership, Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks, remain in Europe. Against the very best, forward dominance is all and these two teams are quite magnificent in the close quarter battles.

For Sale, visiting Ashton Gate on Friday night, they overcame a match littered with cards of all hues as they shut out Bristol Bears despite Sale playing with only 14 men for 50 minutes. England prop Bevan Rodd showed his progress with a barnstorming display, one that left his fellow international Kyle Sinckler in tatters.

However, Bristol’s rather unique tactic of leaving something like £2million of international quality players on their bench until around the 50 minute mark was questionable before kick off rising to pure insanity after the result. Sale are well equipped to take on the big boys of France but Bristol must rue their tactical conservatism.

Leicester too built upon their demolition of Clermont Auvergne with another powerful forward effort, led by England skipper-elect, Ellis Genge and supported brilliantly by the evergreen George Ford and the wizardry of Harry Potter. The only blot on their copy book was the late red card for England flank Ollie Chessum – a man that’s really advanced his skill and play this season.

Irish familiarity

Munster were always going to have enough with their Thomond Park support to see off Exeter Chiefs. Inspired by Joey Carbery, their power and intellect sees them roar into a home tie against Toulouse – however, due to the pre-booking of Thomond Park for an Ed Sheeran concert, that home ground happens to be the Aviva Stadium, where you can be absolutely sure Dublin will rock as loudly as Limerick will. The announcers at the Aviva might be considering their playlist for the fixture and we’d look no further than Sheeran’s South of the Border or Visiting Hours for our inspiration.

Quietly and confidently, Leinster have gone about their European business to see yet another quarter-final. Very few sides have the all-court ability of the Dubliners – a Test level pack, world class half-backs and a back-line where Leo Cullen can choose from 12 full Test players.

They’ll visit Welford Road to take on the one team that might just match their mighty pack – Tigers have ‘champions’ written large in their DNA and this match might just yet be the biggest test of Steve Borthwick’s coaching career and one that we cannot wait to see.

Marcus is human

Harlequins fly-half Smith ignited what could possibly be the try of the season from his own line at the Stoop. A magnificent touchline save by Danny Care saw a dummy and two goose steps followed by the ignition of afterburners to see a 95-metre score for the impressive Joe Marchant at the other end.

Quins were absolutely magnificent on the day, with Alex Dombrandt putting in a display to answers his critics after he was eclipsed by fellow England eight hopeful Zach Mercer the previous weekend. However, after 40 minutes of brilliant comeback work from Will Evans, a further injury for the Quins flank saw his side lose momentum at the breakdown as he was sorely missed in the second half.

However, 39 minutes later, Smith missed a rugby open goal as he was wide with a conversion that would have taken Quins to a well-deserved quarter-final. If we are being churlish, for all of Smith’s genius with ball in hand, his set work is losing the race of excellence; time and time again his penalty touch finds were 10 or 20 metres short of the standard required and at this level – those margins are game changing.

The match was marred by yet another eccentric refereeing display by Scotsman Mike Adamson, whose recalcitrance to award cards despite nine successive offences by Montpellier on their own line, together with a clear professional foul on an offside intercept showed that this official yet again should not be performing at this level.

Easter cards

Sadly, the last take away from our weekend was the number of cards of either hue that were shown to the various teams. We saw five reds and a massive 14 yellows in a competition that featured eight per cent of the starting players on view sent from the pitch for various infringements.

Frankly, the game is in a conundrum – yes, it’s key to sort out the head impact issues and that remains a priority of the sport. Player behaviour is changing slowly but the impact that a mistiming is having on the end result is simply far too great. Couple this with the modern interpretation of virtually any form of intercept attempt, genuine or not, almost invariably resulting in a yellow card and we can see that officiating rather than playing is having too great an impact.

It is now time to sort this out. Downgrading a red to 20 minutes and then allowing players to be replaced will simply result in the higher end offences, the real skulduggery, re-entering the game. There needs to be a simple introduction of an orange card for accidental but clumsy head impact issues, with the ability to replace the miscreant with a new player after 20 minutes. But the red and yellow need to remain – the red for serious misconduct or thuggery, otherwise rugby will find itself jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

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