This season’s Heineken Champions Cup has been a logistical nightmare but the tournament’s knock-out stages could yet offer some seriously good viewing. Despite the Covid issues that prompted the cancellation of several games in the past month, some potentially fierce two-leg contests now await in the last 16.
Leicester, the current Premiership leaders, now face a fascinating home and away duel with Clermont Auvergne while the English champions Harlequins will be up against Montpellier, who have managed to sneak into the last eight despite shipping 89 points at Leinster in round three.
Among the other stand-out ties will be the all-Irish encounter between Leinster and Connacht and a Parisian ‘derby’ between Racing 92 and Stade Français. The defending European champions Toulouse also face a potentially tricky assignment against Ulster while last year’s beaten finalists La Rochelle are involved in another all-French rendezvous with Bordeaux.
Bristol, for their part, can look forward to an all-English collision with Sale, which will at least simplify the travel arrangements of both sides, and Munster will meet Exeter following a fluctuating final afternoon of pool action. Exeter’s see-sawing 37-26 loss in Montpellier and Wasps’ convincing 45-7 defeat at Thomond Park ultimately tipped the balance, with a total of five English clubs joining seven French sides and four from Ireland in making it through the pool stages.
The quarter-final lineup is also looking tasty with Leicester, if they progress, potentially in line to meet Leinster in the last eight. Quins, similarly, would be up against the winners of La Rochelle v Bordeaux with a trip to Paris to face Racing 92 potentially in wait for either Bristol or Sale.
Not for the first time, Exeter were indebted to the outstanding Sam Simmonds who scored a hat-trick of tries to sustain a contest which Montpellier led 24-5 at one stage. The dynamic Simmonds, playing his 100th senior game for the club, scored his first within the opening four minutes only for Montpellier’s forward power to wrest back control and lay the platform for tries from the French internationals Anthony Bouthier, Paul Willemse and the ex-Springbok centre Jan Serfontein.
The Chiefs, though, refused to lie down with Simmonds collecting his second before the centre Seán O’Brien grabbed an interception score. Stuart Hogg thought he had scored his side’s fourth try just before the interval, only for it to ruled out for a supposed knock on, but Simmonds’ third try after 50 minutes, following 20 patient phases, briefly put Exeter in front.
A 69th-minute interception try from Cobus Reinach, however, ultimately settled a full-bore contest.
In Limerick Wasps needed a losing or a try bonus point to progress but such objectives were overshadowed by the sight of their flanker Thomas Young being carried off on a stretcher and taken to hospital for scans after sustaining a neck injury following a collision at a ruck late in the first half.
Even before Young’s spirit-sapping departure, things were already going awry for Wasps. Munster had lost Dave Kilcoyne and Keith Earls shortly before kick-off but first-half tries by Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Jack O’Donoghue gave them a handy cushion. A close range snipe from Robson gave his side a flicker of hope only for Jeremy Loughman, Rory Scannell and a second try from Zebo to extinguish it.
Cardiff, who did their best to fly their flag for the Welsh regions in often trying circumstances, were edged out of contention by a remarkable final quarter in Paris where a 14-man Stade Français recovered from 31-20 down to beat Connacht 37-31 with the final kick of the match.
They will now drop into the last-16 of the Challenge Cup along with Wasps, Northampton, Bath, Castres and Glasgow but this season’s European adventure is now over for the bottom-placed Ospreys and Scarlets. Saracens kept alive their chances of progressing with a 45-24 win over London Irish.
George Ford, meanwhile, is set to join England’s training camp in Brighton this week following Owen Farrell’s latest injury setback. Ford was omitted from Eddie Jones’s original squad last Tuesday but is now in line to return to the matchday squad for the Calcutta Cup fixture against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday week.