WESTWOOD, CA – After three years of pure dominance up, down, and all around the pitch, the reign of Toulon is officially over. Racing’s heroics were just enough to eek by the three-time reigning champions from southern France and finally reopened the possibility of European greatness for four other clubs. Four stunning quarterfinals later and Wasps, Saracens, Leicester, and Racing 92 have punched their ticket into the semifinals of Europe’s premier competition. Three of the four semifinals were decided by nine points or less, the fourth turning out to be more of a blow out, but an amazing performance by the victorious nonetheless. Relive what was a truly stunning weekend of European club rugby and see how our expert panelists faired in RWU’s coverage of the European Rugby Champions Cup quarterfinals…
Expert Picks Panel:
Standings: 1) Mr. Harrington 2) JWB 3) Mr. Blaber 4) Mr. Nelson 5) Mr. Frechette 6) Mr. Yeats
Wasps 25–24 Exeter Chiefs
Ricoh Arena, Coventry
After trailing by 13 points with a half an hour to go, Wasps managed one of the most stunning comebacks in recent memory to top the surging Exeter Chiefs by just one point. Wasps fly half Jimmy Gopperth slotted the winning conversion from the right touchline in the 80+1 minute to hand the men in black and yellow a famous victory at their new home in Coventry.
The opening 20 minutes was a mixed bag of attack and defence as the two teams felt out each other’s game plans and settled into such a big occasion. The match opened with five minutes of stalemate until Gopperth opened the Wasps accounts and put his side ahead 3–0 from a penalty goal. 10 minutes later Gopperth had another three points after a
break down the left touchline from centre Siale Piutau caught the Chiefs’ defence snoring and forced a penalty. Wasps went ahead 6–0.
After the 20th minute, the visitors turned down several opportunities to kick for points, opting instead for kicks to the corner in search of a try.
Several attempts later their bravery finally paid off and, in the 34th minute, big #8 Thomas Waldrom rumbled over in the wake of a devastating driving maul to give his side the lead after Steenson’s conversion. The wave of momentum continued for the Chiefs as Waldrom found the try zone once again before the half, intercepting a pass from Wasps replacement lock Bradley Davies and bursting 35 m for the score. Steenson’s conversion made it 14-6 to the visitors at the break.
Wasps head coach Dai Young instilled some sort of unshakeable belief into his players’ psyche at the break. The home side came out in the second half playing like ruggers possessed. Not two minutes in, Wasps fullback Charles Piutau found himself on the end of a perfectly placed grubber from scrum-half Dan Robson and crossed over for his side’s first try of the match to cut the Chiefs’ lead to just three points.
But there Chiefs were not going to roll over that easily. Replacement prop Harry Williams scored a try in the 48 minutes to restore a 10 point lead to the visitors. 10 minutes later, Steenson added a penalty to bring the lead to 13 with half an hour to play.
Squeaky bum time ensued. Wasps winger Frank Halai found the final pass from an Elliot Daly break to cut their lead to 6 points with 15 minutes left before the home side stole the match away. Eventual man of the match Charles Piutau ripped through a porous Chiefs defence to score in the 79th minute. Most importantly, Gopperth showed beautiful nerves of steel in converting from the touchline to send his side to their first semi-final since 2007.
Saracens 29–20 Northampton Saints
Allianz Park, London
Despite being outplayed for more than two thirds of the match, favourites Saracens managed to overcome Aviva Premiership rivals Northampton to save their spot in the European semifinals.
Six minutes into the contest, England international Owen Farrell kicked over the match’s first points to give the Sarries a 3-0 lead.
The lead was short lived, though, as Saints winger Ken Pisi burst over the line for the first try of the match to give Northampton a 7–3 lead after fly half Stephen Myler’s conversion. Owen Farrell managed to pull the lead within one point after a 20th minute penalty, but Myler matched his opposite number 10 minutes later to bring the score to 10–6 going into the break.
The half started brightly for Saracens and it looked as though they had scored a try thanks to Duncan Taylor’s score in the corner, but referee Jerome Garces and the TMO called it back after flanker Will Frasier was deemed to have block Northampton’s Luther Burrell.
Myler and Farrell then proceeded to trade penalties and by the 60th minute Northampton’s was down to a single point.
It wasn’t until the 67th minute that Saracens regained the lead, all thanks to captain and inside centre, Brad Barritt. His searing run downfield with a little more than 10 minutes left to play was swung wide to Chris Ashton who, with his “signature” (really a swan dive really?) swan dive, finally put the Saracens on the lead. American International Chris Wyles crossed over for the Sarries second try of the second half and put the game out of reach, even despite an 80th minute try from Northampton’s Courtney Lawes.
Saracens 29–20 victory and them their third consecutive European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final and set them up with the clash against Wasps at the Madjeski in Reading.
Leicester 41 – 13 Stade Francais
Welford Road, Leicester
In a beautiful display of champagne rugby, Richard Cockerill’s Leicester Tigers put visiting Stade Français (SF) to the sword to reach their first European semifinals since their run to the final against Leinster in 2009. It was pure, unadulterated domination for a side looking to bounce back from relative disappointment in domestic campaign.
The Tigers caught SF sleeping in the opening minute and, after a cheeky quick line out, Manu Tuilagi crossed over the line unopposed under the sticks to give the home side a 7–0 lead after Freddie Burns’ conversion.
Stade did their best to settle the match’s tempo through the next 25 minutes or so and, after two penalty kicks from fly half Morne Steyn, had pulled the score to a favourable 6–10.
Then, just as the Gates of Mordor (if you are a Stade fan), the floodgates opened and the demolition of SF again.
Right on the stroke of half an hour, Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs found Fijian winger Vereniki Goneva on a dime and the Fijian easily crossed over the white wash. Not only did fly half Freddie Burns tack on the conversion, but only two minutes later intercepted a stray passed from Steyn and ran it all the way back downfield to add a try and another conversion to his tally. Leicester triumphantly went into the break ahead 24–6.
Stade came out with a bang in the second half as former Leicester man Julien Dupuy broke the visitors’ silent score tally, but even then the visitors couldn’t put a lid on the hot stepping Fijian winger Goneva. It only took him have a yard of space to wriggle past the defender and burst down the side line to nullify SF’s score.
Leicester hit the visitors with two more tries before the match was over, a beautiful break from thereon half that eventually saw Mike Fitzgerald cross over and a final score from winger Telusa Veainu to wrap up an amazing 41–13 victory.
Racing 92 19–16 Toulon
In the only all French contest of the weekend, Racing 92 managed to end the run of the three time reigning champions, Toulon in an attritional battle at Paris’ Stade Yves du Manoir.
The opening five minutes started off with an absolute bang as Racing built up an amazing 10 point lead. Racing fly half Dan Carter opened the scoring on a penalty goal thanks to an infringement on the first kickoff, followed by a great try when Argentinian winger Juan Imhoff intercepted a stray past from Toulon scrum-half Maxime Machenaud and sprinted his way for the first try of the match (converted by Carter).
The 10 point lead was short lived, however, because in the eighth minute Toulon’s Charles Ollivon received a pass after winger Josua Tuisova broke through the Parisians’ defence. Toulon fly half Pelissie converted the extras to bring the gap down to three points. The visitors managed to bring the school level in the dying seconds of the first half thanks to another penalty goal from Pelissie, sending the two sides into the break level at 10 a piece.
The second half was much, much more attritional than the first period. Long story short (it was a rather boring other half), Pelissie and Machenaud, kicking in place of an injured Dan Carter, traded kicks to bring the sore level at 16 by the 60th minute before Machenaud smashed through the winning penalty goal with two minutes left. Racing were able to hold on to that slim margin to deny the visitors another go at European glory.
Racing 92 will take on Leicester at the City Ground in Nottingham in the semifinals.
That is it for now. Feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Nick Hall, DJ Eberle, Jake Frechette, Scheenagh Harrington, Ronan Nelson, Kyle Phillips and Declan Yeats, respectively