Champions Cup keeps its promises and offers a delicious quarter-final menu | Champions Cup
JThis year’s Champions Cup offered a quarter-final worthy of the competition’s great reputation in the game. Montpellier, Leicester and Leinster – respectively leaders of the French and English leagues plus the multinational United Championship – are there. Toulouse – Champions Cup holders and the most successful club in the tournament’s history with five wins – are also in on the action. Just like La Rochelle, finalist last season, and double winner Munster.
There is a lag in the draw however as one side of the equation is stacked with former champions while the other half can only point to four unsuccessful finals as a sign of their collective continental pedigree.
Leicester, back-to-back champions in 2001 and 2002, weren’t at their best on Saturday in a 27-17 win over Clermont but still earned the tie with an impressive 56-27 aggregate scoreline. “It was piss poor,” was Captain Ellis Genge’s assessment of a staccato display that lacked the usual precision of a Steve Borthwick-trained unit.
“That’s not who we are,” Genge said. “We train really, really hard and not to produce stuff like that. We had a crush and we’ll sort it out.
They will have to if they have a plan to beat four-time winners Leinster, who are in imperious form and sent Connacht 56-20 to Dublin on Friday. “Leinster are big game players and big boys,” Genge said. “We have to be on our jobs.”
Munster are 10 points behind their rivals in the Irish United Championship pool, but were equally impressive as they beat Exeter 26-10 in Limerick, overcoming a first leg defeat in Devon. They then host Toulouse, who needed a 75th-minute try from Antoine Dupont to edge Ulster by a single point on aggregate.
Between them, Leicester, Leinster, Munster and Toulouse have been crowned best in Europe 13 times. Whoever plays the final in Marseille in May will have history on his side.
That’s not to say the matching quartet is simply competing for money. Montpellier stunned Harlequins in the first leg of their draw, beating the Premiership champions 40-26 in France and then, with what many pundits this side of the Channel considered a weakened side, held off a an inspired response from Marcus Smith to progress despite their 33-20 defeat at the Stoop.
“Do you still think I don’t respect the competition?” Montpellier director of rugby Philippe Saint-André asked after the game in London where Smith missed a decisive late conversion. “To be honest, I expected him to kick off the conversion,” said Saint-Andre, who also honored his reserve players, highlighting the breadth of talent at his disposal.
This strength of depth – a consequence of the deep pockets of club owners, but also the decision of the JIFF which imposes a mandatory quota for local talents – allows French teams to fight on several fronts. There are four Top 14 teams in the last eight and there will be at least one in the semi-finals with Montpellier traveling to La Rochelle, where they won 29-23 in January. Racing 92’s home game against Sale completes the set.
Sale reached this stage last year when they were soundly beaten 45-21 by La Rochelle in the Bay of Biscay. They have never made it past the quarter-finals and will need to be better than they were against a struggling Bristol side who were only sidelined by a 75th-minute try from Jono Ross at the return match.
The race won’t be a breeze after beating Stade Français 55-31 in two games. Sixth in France, they have six members of the Grand Slam-winning French team in their ranks.
Context is the cornerstone of any high-level athletic competition. Given the quality of the remaining clubs, the captain who lifts the trophy in May can claim that he is the best team in Europe.