TOULON, FRANCE – After five bruising rounds of competition, the European Rugby Champions Cup has only one quarterfinalist. At this stage last season, six sides had their places booked, reflecting the remarkably balanced nature of this season’s competition.
Clermont squeezed by Sale 23-13 to secure the top spot in Pool 1 ahead of the final round of play. The French giants squeezed the life out of the Sharks through Camille Lopez’ boot, with the fly-half securing eighteen points on impeccable six from six kicking. Sale astonishingly secured the vast majority of territory in the second half- seventy percent, but their repeated infringements proved the Sharks’ undoing. Clermont conceded sixteen turnovers and fifteen penalties, numbers that must improve if they are to finally break the European curse. However, when it counted Lopez and his teammates were simply clinical, and secured the vital four points.
Munster lost their third consecutive match in European competition for the first time, and their 33-10 loss to Saracens was their heaviest in the competition since a 60-19 defeat at Toulouse in 1997. Sarries had their way from the word opening kick, and they were up 23-3 when the halftime whistle blew. Owen Farrell continued to show his ability from the tee, kicking seven of eight opportunities. American utility back Chris Wyles started on the wing in place of injured David Strettle, and scored a first half try after a magnificent movement started by a wide pass from Richard Wigglesworh.. For Munster, this is a rare lost campaign; they have only been eliminated prior to the quarterfinals once.
Leinster demolished Castres 50-8 at the RDS, scoring seven tries in the process. The men in blue had secured their bonus point by halftime. Things started off well for Leinster when Dave Kearney scored in the second minute, and they only got better as the match went on. In an astonishing thirteen minute period before the half, Leinster blitzed Castres and scored three tries to destroy the French side’s spirit. Ahead of their final round matchup with Wasps, Leinster have 18 points while their English counterparts are at 16. Harlequins theoretically have a chance to qualify in a second-place quarterfinalist berth, but it seems unlikely.
Wasps continued their dream campaign with a convincing 23-3 win over Harlequins, proving that they have a defensive backbone to go along with their offensive flair. James Haskell led from the front, making 24 tackles. Dai Young’s gameplan worked to perfection when early tries from Christian Wade and Joe Simpson laid the groundwork for the defensive dominance to follow. The victory sets up a winner-take-all clash with Leinster at Wasps’ new Coventry home next weekend. The first match between the two was a tense 25-20 Leinster win at the RDS, making the final pool fixture a mouth-watering prospect.
Toulon secured the first quarterfinal berth of the season by dispatching Ulster in astonishing fashion, 60-22 in the south of France. Records were broken with aplomb as Toulon sent Ulster to their worst-ever defeat in European history. Leigh Halfpenny sent seven conversions sailing through the uprights, Steffon Armitage made his case for an England call-up with a hat-trick, and even Martin Castrogiovanni got in on the fun, securing the bonus point in the forty-ninth minute. Toulon can now look forward to yet another home quarterfinal at the Stade Felix-Mayol, where they have never lost in Europe’s premiere club competition.
Leicester kept their slim quarterfinal hopes alive with a bonus-point victory against Scarlets. Following a second round slip-up to the Welsh team that has cost the Tigers dear, Richard Cockerill took no chances or prisoners. Tom Youngs, Jordan Crane, Adam Thompstone, and Miles Benjamin put their names on the scoresheet for Leicester, who turned on the afterburners in the second half to gain separation. The Tigers now need a bonus point victory at Ulster, a prospect that seems far more realistic now than it did two months ago when the pool stage began.
Glasgow just missed out on a crucial bonus point, scoring three tries through wing DTH van der Merwe in their 21-10 victory over Montpelier. Though the French team had little to play for, they put forth a courageous defensive effort, repeatedly resisting Glasgow drives close to the line. Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend was left frustrated by his team’s inability to execute, commenting after the match “we are disappointed by how we didn’t make the most of our opportunities” and further claiming that the team’s poor decision-making inside the 22 was to blame.
Bath had no such regrets after their bonus-point demolition of Toulouse. Toulouse would have secured first place in the group with a victory, but they were left reeling in the first seven minutes when Bath raced out to a 10-0 lead. Tolouse regrouped and scored a quick try of their own, but the floodgates really opened after scrum-half Chris Cook scored in the twenty third minute. In the following ten minutes, Jonathan Joseph crossed, George Ford kicked a penalty and a conversion, and suddenly an eighteen point gap had opened between the teams. Tolouse would gather their wits once more and cut the lead to seven, but Francois Louw finished off the fixture with a try, and Bath ended the match in front, 35-18. At the conclusion of five rounds, Toulouse are still on top of the table with 16 points, while Bath have 15 and Glasgow 14.
Another weekend, another blowout for Treviso. The Italians went down with a whimper against Racing Metro, succumbing to an entirely predictable 53-7 thrashing. Racing steadily build pressure and never let up; evidenced by a hat trick from their hooker Dimitri Szarzewski. One minor worry for Racing in a nine try performance was their lack of a secondary kicking option in the absence of Jonny Sexton. The Parisians only converted four of their nine kicks at goal, and that figure was inflated by a penalty try conversion from directly in front of the posts. Though they are practically guaranteed at least a second-place quarterfinalist berth, Racing must be wary of such profligacy in the knockout rounds.
Northampton’s offensive juggernaut stalled slightly against Ospreys, but they managed to secure an all-important away victory nonetheless. Almost all of the action took place in the first half, which ended with Northampton clinging to an eight point lead. Following the interval, a raft of substitutions from both sides made their way on the pitch. Though a bonus point victory would have been immensely valuable for the Saints, they never seemed to push too hard, perhaps frightened of further injury after Ben Foden exited in the eleventh minute. Jim Mallinder’s team will take the group with an away victory against Racing Metro next weekend, but they too can likely look forward to a quarterfinalist berth at the very least.