Five things we learned from Euro Cup
CHAMPIONS CUP SPOTLIGHT: The European Champions Cup field is down to eight.
The competition will take a break until after the Six Nations.
AFP Sport looks at five things to take from the pool stage which ended on Sunday:
Saracens can concentrate on Cup
After defending champions Saracens edged Racing 92 to set up a quarterfinal against Leinster, the team they beat in last year’s Final, director of rugby Mark McCall’s post-game interview was glum.
“This is the end of an era,” said McCall, the day after Saracens announced they would accept relegation for breaking salary-cap regulations.
The Premiership campaign is now meaningless.
After the season, the club will have to transform their squad. But that also means that, once they return from Six Nations duty, the club’s highly-paid stars can focus just on Europe.
“There’s no doubt the bunch of players we’ve got in our squad now aren’t going to be the same bunch of players we have in the Championship next year,” McCall said.
Wales sinks to new depths
The last 12 months have brought further glory for the Welsh national team: a Six Nations Grand Slam followed by a three-point semifinal loss to eventual champions South Africa in the World Cup.
Yet continuing international success seems to be built on crumbling foundations.
The Ospreys’ 6-33 capitulation away to Munster meant they lost all six of their games and picked up just two bonus points.
That is not a record for a Welsh team.
In the past decade, the Dragons and the Scarlets (twice) have collected just two points.
But in those years there was another Welsh team which won games. This time, Ospreys were the only Welsh entrant.
Worse, in the past even the weakest Welsh teams have had someone else to look down on, usually Italians. But this year Treviso, unlike the Ospreys, won a game
Carl Hogg, the Ospreys forwards coach, suggested national success and regional failure may be linked.
“Obviously having players away at the World Cup and our injury list was always going to make playing in the Champions Cup very difficult and very challenging,” he said after the loss in Ireland.
“But there are some green shoots. I see lots of positive elements.”
Europe finally comes to Exeter
For the first time, Exeter’s fans will have a chance to see their Chiefs play a European Champions Cup knockout game at Sandy Park.
Exeter put past European wobbles behind them as they beat La Rochelle on Saturday to top their pool and earn second seeding in the knockout rounds.
“It is hugely satisfying,” said Director of Rugby Rob Baxter.
Their reward is a home tie against Northampton.
In six Champions Cup campaigns, the Chiefs have only played one knockout game, away to Wasps in 2016, when, leading by six points, they conceded a converted try in the last minute.
In April, Europe will come to them.
Toulouse and Leinster chase history
When Toulouse beat Gloucester 35-14 this past Sunday they eased their path towards a first final in a decade.
Toulouse, who won the inaugural European Cup in 1996, earned a home quarterfinal against Ulster.
“Before talking about a semifinal we have a quarterfinal to win,” said Director of Rugby Ugo Mola.
“We haven’t hosted a quarterfinal for ten years.”
If the seedings play out, the other finalist in Marseille in May will be the only other team with four titles, Leinster.
The Irish province must first overcome wounded Saracens, who have won the cup in three on the last four years, in Dublin.
“It’s important we make it count, get a big crowd,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
National coaches count the cost
With the Six Nations just two weeks away, national coaches might have been watching the weekend’s European matches through their fingers.
Wales had already been lost prop Rhys Carre to a four-week ban for a red card in the fifth round.
On Sunday, teenage back Louis Rees-Zammit, just been called up to the Wales squad, limped off in the first half as Gloucester lost to Toulouse and was later seen hobbling on crutches.
England suffered a significant loss as No 8 Billy Vunipola went off as Saracens beat Racing 92 with a suspected broken forearm.
The qualifiers for the 2019/20 Champions Cup quarterfinals and their rankings at the conclusion of the pool stage are as follows:
1 Leinster (winner Pool One – 28 points)
2 Exeter Chiefs (winner Pool Two – 27 points)
3 Toulouse (winner Pool Five – 27 points)
4 ASM Clermont Auvergne (winner Pool Three – 24 points)
5 Racing 92 (winner Pool Four – 23 points)
6 Ulster (runner-up Pool Three – 21 points)
7 Northampton Saints (runner-up Pool One – 19 points)
8 Saracens (runner-up Pool Four – 18 points)
The quarterfinal matches to be played on April 3/4/5:
Quarterfinal One: Leinster v Saracens, Aviva Stadium
Quarterfinal Two: ASM Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92, Stade Marcel-Michelin
Quarterfinal Three: Toulouse v Ulster, Stade Ernest-Wallon
Quarterfinal Four: Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints, Sandy Park
Round Six reports
Toulouse secure home Euro quarter
Montpellier hang on to beat Connacht
Munster finish Euro campaign in style
Saracens bury relegation woes
Glasgow run Sale ragged
Exeter secure home quarterfinal
Ulster down Bath
Clermont grind their way past Quins
Flawless Leinster blank Benetton
Saints stun Lyon in France