Knockout interpro rugby to come; Ken Early on chaos at Everton

The Morning Sports Briefing: Keep ahead of the game with ‘The Irish Times’ sports team

Connacht and Leinster are set to square off in the Champions Cup last 16. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht and Leinster are set to square off in the Champions Cup last 16. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

If the upcoming Six Nations-filled rugby calendar wasn’t enticing enough, yesterday’s final round of Champions Cup pool action has thrown up an impending interpro for April’s European knockout stages. Connacht suffered a heartbreaking late defeat yesterday for the second week in a row, but must now be licking their lips at the prospect of getting Leinster out west for a European game in Galway, while Leo Cullen’s side probably won’t mind a bit of familiarity, especially seeing as the second leg is likely to be played at fortress Aviva. Gerry Thornley breaks down the rest of the last 16 draw here, but the other Irish highlights are that after victory over Wasps yesterday, Munster are set to take on Exeter while Ulster’s ‘reward’ for a perfect pool stage is a daunting tie against Antoine Dupont et al at Toulouse.

Ken Early’s column this morning addresses a seemingly chaotic situation at Everton. It appears that Rafael Benitez managed to alienate a whole load of people before finally being shown the door at Goodison, but unless the ownership situation or leadership strategy at the club changes, Rafa’s replacement is likely to be just the next stop on the coaching merry-go-round. In terms of the on-pitch Premier League action, yesterday saw wins for Liverpool and Chelsea but a frustrating draw for Arsenal at home to bottom-dwellers Burnley.

In the now four years and four months since Ballyhale Shamrocks last lost a knock-out championship match, only the pandemic has halted their irrepressible dominance. St Thomas’ did their best to curb the All-Ireland club hurling champions at Semple Stadium yesterday, but TJ Reid’s late goal handed the Kilkenny outfit a dramatic win. They now move on to the final where they will be met by Waterford’s Ballygunner after their win over Slaughtneil. After both the McGrath and O’Byrne Cups wrapped up over the weekend, Malachy Clerkin is looking at how an unusually stellar preseason cast shows how seriously the likes of Dublin and Kerry are taking their pursuit of All-Ireland champions Tyrone: “The football landscape became hopeless for a time during Dublin’s reign but now, for the first time in close to a decade, you have huge chunks of the populace facing into a year where they at least feel they can set about righting wrongs.”

Séamus Power faltered on the final day at La Quinta to finish in a disappointing tie for 14th after starting the round only two shots off the lead. He wasn’t the only Irish golfer to struggle while in contention on Sunday as Shane Lowry fired a closing 77 to end his run for victory at the DP World Tour opener in Abu Dhabi. In NFL action, Tom Brady is left to consider his playing future after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers were dumped out of the playoffs by Sean McVay and the LA Rams.

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