DUBLIN, IRL – The European Rugby Champions Cup group stages ended with a bang last weekend as all 20 teams in the tournament fought for eight coveted spots in the quarterfinals. After all was said and done Clermont Auvergne, Munster, Saracens, Leinster, Wasps, Glasgow, Toulouse, and Toulon still stood in Europe’s elite competition, looking ahead to April’s quarterfinals for their next shot at Europe’s top prize. Recap the weekend’s action and see who won our Expert Picks Panel below.
Glasgow 43–0 Leicester
Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow Warriors booked their ticket into the last eight as they routed Leicester in front of 19,000+ at Welford Road. In what can only be described as one of the Tigers worst performances in recent memory, the Warriors were unstoppable, sending wave after wave at the home side’s defense with much success. Tommy Seymour continued his dark horse quest for a Lions spot on the wing to open Glasgow’s scoring only five minutes into the match. Outside-Center Mark Bennett, locks Jonny Gray and Tim Swinson, and loose forward Ryan Wilson all scored for the Scottish side, within Russell adding conversions and penalties. It was a record defeat for Leicester at Welford Road as they bowed out of the tournament, while Glasgow moves on and will travel to London to face raining European champions Saracens in the knockouts.
Racing 10–22 Munster
Racing did their absolute best to try and thwart a Munster ‘s bid for a home quarterfinal as they traveled to Thomond Parkon Saturday, but came up short despite their valiant efforts. Munster have done their best to make Anthony Foley proud since his untimely death before the 1st Round, and ever since they have played nothing short of inspired. The southern Irish province has shown a strength in Europe not seen since the mid 2000’s and are undoubtedly tournament favorites for many. The opening 36 minutes were a cagey opening for sides who had met only two weeks before in Paris, and you could feel the home crowd getting restless with each passing minute. The Munster faithful came alive, though, when Simon Zebo scored the match’s first try just four minutes before halftime. Racing managed a last second penalty goal to go into the half behind 7-3. The second half was much more open. Ronan O’Mahoney and Maxime Machenaud swapped tries in the first 20 minutes to keep the match close, but Ian Keatley’s 69th minute try sealed the deal. Racing bow out after what has been a disappointing tournament, while Munster moves on to a home quarterfinal against Toulouse.
Connacht 10–19 Toulouse
Stade Ernest Wallon
Connacht’s bid to finally make it to a Champions Cup quarterfinal ended as they succumbed to an away defeat against European giant, Toulouse. Gael Fickou put the home side on the board after only five minutes with a powerful opening try. Arthur Bonneval added to Toulouse’s tally just 10 minutes later for their second try of the match to go up 14-0. Connacht’sfirst points came in the form of a penalty in the 33rd minute to go into halftime down 14-3. Pat Lam’s men succumbed to another try only a few minutes after the halftime break. The captain, John Muldoon, scored the province’s only try of the match 13 minutes after the break to give the reigning Pro12 Champions a glimmer of hope, but Toulouse was too strong defensively. The French side moves onto the last eight after years of heartbreak and will travel to Munster, while Connacht will have to turn and focus on domestic competition.
Wasps 41–27 Zebre
Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi
Wasps were made to work for a quarterfinal spot by Italian side Zebre. The Italians struck first with a try in the 13th minute and held the Londoners only three points through the opening 31 minutes, but Ashley Johnson’s try open the floodgates for the visitors. Johnson ended up scoring two tries on the day while five other Wasps crossed the whitewash for respective tries. Wasps will travel to Dublin to take on Leinster in the quarterfinals.
Scarlets 23–25 Sale
AJ Bell Stadium
American international AJ MacGinty kicked five penalties to boost Sale over welsh side Scarlets in a tight game in Manchester. With a spot in the quarterfinals unreachable for both teams, pride was on the line. Dan Jones was huge for Scarlets all day, kicking 13 of their 23 points. DTH van der Merwe score the website’s only individual try of the day, their are other points coming off a penalty try. Odogwu and Addison scored the Sharks’ two tries on the day, but MacGinty stole the show with his excellent performance from the tee. Both Sale and Scarlets will now turn and focus their efforts on their domestic championships.
Toulon 3–10 Saracens
In a match between the only two European champions in the last four years, a 60th minute try by England international Chris Ashton was the only difference as Saracens went on to beat Toulon. Saracens got on the board and the 31st minute with an Owen Farrell penalty, the only points of the first half. The defensive effort from both sides was massive all day, and only a spurt of brilliance from Ashton allowed the home side some wiggle room. With Toulon’s losing bonus point, however, both sides move on to the quarterfinals, Saracens playing host to Glasgow while Toulon travel to take on the French rivals Clermont.
Castres 24–24 Leinster
Stade Pierre Antoine
Castres’ impressive home record stood firm as they drew Leinster 24-24 in a grudge match. Leinster were ahead by 10points after 10 minutes, but the Pace and power of Sexton and Henshaw were countered by the home side only 10 minutes later. Castres then reversed the match by taking the lead themselves through a try from winger David Smith to go into halftime ahead 17-10. Henshaw and Smith both got their second tries within the first 10 minutes of the second half to bring the score to 24-17. Dan Leavy’s 63rd minute drive saw him score the final try of the match to end in a 24-24 draw. Leinster were on the back foot for most of the game and just managed to squeak a home quarterfinal against English rivals Wasps, while Castres now have the opportunity to return to the French league with a new boost of optimism.
Northampton 17–26 Montpellier
Bordeaux 26-22 Ulster
Exeter 26-48 Clermont
Clermont showed their true colors as they smashed Exeter to take the top seed in the Champions Cup. Exeter trying to put their best foot forward, but the French club was much too powerful on home soil to be ruffled. Five first-half tries sealedthe bonus-point for Clermont, putting them ahead 34-0 at halftime. However, if the Chiefs did not go down without a fight. The visitors bravely rattled off four tries within the opening 20 minutes to bring the score to 41-26, but the Frenchman fixed their defense of structure and put a stop to the epic come back. Clermont now have home-field advantage throughout the knockouts and will post French rivals and three-time European champions Toulon and what will hopefully be the tournament’s most exciting game yet.
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