CLERMONT, FRANCE – The quarterfinals for the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup are set. The knockout rounds feature a mostly familiar set of faces, but new powers have arisen in England with Bath and Wasps making the final stages for the first time in five years.
Clermont enjoyed their characteristic home dominance on Sunday, dispatching Saracens 18-6. Clermont dominated both territory and possession, enjoying 59 percent of the former and 61 percent of the latter. Owen Farrell was forced off in the eighteenth minute with an apparent injury, disrupting Saracens attacking plans. Clermont were ahead 10-0 at the half thanks to a converted Nick Abendanon try and a penalty from Camile Lopez. Saracens drew within four points when Charlie Hodgson landed a penalty in the 49th minute, but Vincent Debaty scored Clermont’s second try of the match to put the French team beyond their visitors. Saracens and Clermont both move through to the quarterfinals, where Clermont will face English champions Northampton at home. Saracens will go up against the ascendant Racing Metro in Paris.
Munster demolished Sale in a statement game, going out of the competition in style with a 65-10 victory. The rout was on in the first minute, when Simon Zebo crossed the line for the first of Munster’s nine tries. In Sale’s defense, Steve Diamond named an under-strength side. However, the extent of the thrashing suggests that a different line-up would not have made a difference to the final scoreline. 65 points gave Munster their highest ever total in European competition, replacing the 64 points that the Irishmen scored in a win over Viandana in 2002.
Discussion about Leinster and Wasps dominated the run-up to the final round, with an appealing winner-take-all clash set for Saturday at the Ricoh Arena. Few anticipated the final result- a 20-20 draw, which secured both team’s passage to the quarterfinals. Wasps were extremely sloppy in the first half, giving away penalties and suffering from the wrath of the referee, going 20 minutes with 14 men after Lorenzo Cittadini and Ashley Johnson were yellow carded for a pair of indefensible errors. Johnson took Dave Kearney out in the air off the kickoff. Had the offense occurred in the second half, a red card would have been a distinct possibility; it was a truly ugly foul. Cittadini was dismissed for deliberately slowing down play. For most of the first forty minutes, Leinster were penetrating Wasps’ defense with ease. Wasps came out of the locker room a changed side, and scored two second half tries in a heroic effort. A last minute Andy Goode drop goal sailed wide, giving Wasps a few tense hours while waiting for other results. At the end of the day, Wasps and Leinster were both through. Wasps have been handed a difficult draw, and will face defending champions Toulon away from home. Leinster will play Bath in the English team’s return to the quarterfinals.
Leicester would have secured advancement to the quarterfinals if they were able to beat Ulster with a bonus point at Ravenhill. Instead, the Tigers’ up and down season continued with a poor showing. Leicester were bossed by Ulster, and went down 26-7, and the Tigers never looked like they were going to manage four tries. Freddie Burns endured another bipolar day at fly-half. He landed a few beautiful positional kicks and made multiple line breaks, but he also shanked several clearances out on the full. Ulster center Darren Cave scored a hat trick, and the Northern Irishmen were ahead 26-0 before Leicester struck through Adam Thompston in the 53rd minute. The final 25 minutes were drab and scoreless, and Leicester limped out of Europe in the pool stages for the first time since 2011-12.
Toulon eased to a 26-3 victory over Scarlets, securing a home quarter-final in the process. Martin Bastareaud and Bryan Habana scored tries for Toulon, whose starting lineup featured 496 international caps. Toulon enjoyed total dominance throughout, owning the breakdown and forcing Scarlets to make 131 tackles. The only thing letting the French team down was their discipline, as they conceded 17 turnovers. Nonetheless, they will go into the next round as one of the strong favorites.
Bath did not get the bonus point they needed to be mathematically certain of advancement, but they managed to sneak through thanks to a tense 20-15 win over Glasgow and Toulouse’s unexpected capitulation to Montpellier. The Rec was stunned early on by a converted Alex Dunbar try in the 4th minute, but George Ford edged his team to within a single point by nailing two penalties before the half. Glasgow number 8 Richie Vernon scored an excellent try in the 48th minute to put his side up by 6, but Bath responded magnificently to adversity. A penalty try was awarded after Glasgow pulled own a Bath maul near the line, and Glasgow captain Al Kellock was sin binned as a result. Anthony Watson appeared to give Bath the advantage with 15 minutes remaining, but the TMO overruled the try because there was no conclusive proof of grounding. Bath scored a second penalty try thanks to a dominant scrum, and Ollie Devoto converted directly in front of the posts to put his team ahead 20-15. Despite a frantic finish, that remained the score at the full-time whistle, and Bath unexpectedly topped the group.
Nobody gave Montpellier much of a chance against Toulouse after they dropped their first five matches. Instead, they shocked the world and came out on top 27-26 in a thriller. Toulouse looked like they were on track to coast to qualification when a Toby Flood try and conversion put them ahead by 11 points in the second half. Instead, Montpelier came roaring back, scoring two tries in three minutes to go back on top. Toulouse and Montpellier began trading penalties and the lead, with the upper hand changing five times in the final twenty minutes.
Northampton were humbled at home by Racing Metro, who drubbed the Saints 32-8. Racing started out the match sloppily, but their attack became more potent as the match wore on. The finishing from Argentine wing Juan Imhoff was lethal, as he poached a brace. One impressive Northampton move inside their 22 actually ended in a Racing Metro try when Imhoff hacked the ball clear and won a foot race with Stephen Myler to go the length of the field for a back-breaking score. With their advancement already assured, Northampton did not seem particularly interested in prosecuting the cause, and they slumped to an embarrassing final score.
Treviso secured their first European victory in two years against Ospreys. Neither team had anything to play for but pride, but the Italians and Welshmen still managed to put on a mostly entertaining and dramatic encounter. Treviso’s familiarity with their fellow Pro12 side seemed to help, and the Italian’s defense was relatively robust throughout the evening. The victory was secured in the final minute with a penalty try. Treviso have taken a great amount of flack this season for their abysmal campaign, but this victory puts some much needed shine on Italian rugby heading into the Six Nations.