Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro reviews the quarter-final action from this weekend’s European competition.
After a long delay, European rugby finally returned this weekend with the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup quarterfinals pitting Europe’s best against each other.
The Champions Cup served up four hugely entertaining encounters, with Exeter Chiefs securing their maiden Champions Cup semi-final appearance with victory over Northampton Saints. This was not a vintage Exeter performance; however, they still did more than enough to ease past Northampton 38-15 in a five try performance. The big news in the build up was the injury crisis Northampton faced at loosehead prop, forcing them to start 19 year old Manny Iyogun in his first professional game. The youngster performed admirably throughout in a hugely positive performance. It wasn’t to be for the Saints though as Exeter’s ability with ball in hand shone through. Jack Maunder scored the first of the afternoon after a stunning break from Henry Slade. Further scores from Jacques Vermeulen, Jonny Hill and a classy individual try from Jack Nowell saw Exeter ease clear.
Their opponents will be French giants Toulouse after they romped past Ulster 36-8 after an inspired performance from winger Cheslin Kolbe. Such is his skill and footwork that he can make even the most experienced of player look foolish. Ireland winger Jacob Stockdale will be having sleepless nights after Kolbe twice left him grasping at thin air as he raced clear to score. In truth, this was something of a mismatch as Ulster struggled for any real momentum, in an all too similar fashion to their Pro14 final defeat to Leinster the previous weekend. Despite the occasional promising line breaks, they struggled to finish off any attacking movements, their only try coming from scrum-half John Cooney with Toulouse already out of sight. Toulouse will provide a stern test for Exeter in what is set to be a blockbuster semi-final.
On the other side of the draw, Racing 92 will meet reigning champions Saracens after both teams secured victories away from home. Racing won out 36-27 in an entertaining all-French affair with perennial European bridesmaids Clermont Auvergne, still struggling to make the final step in top tier European competition after years of near misses. An early score from Louis Dupichot set Racing on their way, with eight penalties along them to keep Clermont at arms-length. Despite Clermont outscoring Racing four tries to two, the penalty count proved decisive as Racing emerged victorious.
The most eagerly anticipated of the quarterfinals saw a repeat of the 2019 final as Saracens travelled to a Leinster side that had won 25 consecutive games and had secured the Pro14 title the weekend before. Saracens started as underdogs for the tie, with a host of star names having left as a result of the salary cap penalties imposed on the club. The challenge was made tougher by the absence of England captain Owen Farrell following his red card against Wasps. Despite all this, Saracens produced one of the finest European performances of the last decade, as they opened up a commanding 22-3 half-time lead. Leinster fought back in the second half but Saracens held firm to see out a 25-17 victory. Lead by Maro Itoje, Michael Rhodes and Alex Goode, it was a colossal performance from a Saracens side who will be intent on securing a fourth European title before their relegation to the Championship.
In the Challenge Cup, Bristol Bears romped to a 56-17 victory over the Dragons as they showed a sort of dominance that must surely make them favourites for the competition. Semi Radrada and Ben Earl were sublime in their performances. Despite trailing 10-0 early on, Bristol cut loose, scoring 7 high-quality tries.
They will meet Bordeaux-Begles in the semi-finals after the French side secured a 23-14 victory over a disjointed Edinburgh side. Edinburgh were always chasing the game having fallen 14-0 behind early on after tries from former Exeter Chief Santiago Cordero and Jean-Baptiste Dubie. Edinburgh fought their way back into the game, trailing 20-14 with a little over 10 minutes of the match left, however they couldn’t make the final step, as a late penalty from Bordeaux took them out of reach of Edinburgh.
The other side of the draw saw former Champions Cup winners Toulon edge Scarlets 11-6 in a dire game that did little to show the quality European rugby has to offer. With 5000 fans in attendance, Scarlets lead 6-0 at the break. It was not until the introduction of Louis Carbonel that the game turned in Toulon’s favour. After a Carbonel penalty, legendary number 8 Sergio Parisse crossed for the only try of the game, before another Carbonel penalty saw Toulon sneak home.
They will meet a misfiring Leicester Tigers side in the semi-final they were awarded a victory over Castres in farcical circumstances. Three players and one member of staff for Castres tested positive for Covid-19 and, despite all four being left at home and no members of the matchday side testing positive, the decision was taken that Castres would have to forfeit the tie, allowing Leicester to progress into the semi-finals without so much as a pass.
The stage is set for next weekend, with all four semi-finals involving an English and a French side. Exeter’s date with destiny will see them take on Toulouse in their first ever Champions Cup semi-final. The major positive of the weekend was the decision by French authorities to allow 5000 fans into the stadiums for French hosted ties. Racing 92 and Toulon will both be able to count on some form of home support for their semi-finals. However, both Exeter and Bristol will have to contend with playing a home semi-final behind closed doors. European rugby is back though, the matches over the past weekend reminding us all of why it remains the pinnacle of club rugby.