Gerry Thornley: Champions Cup quarter-finals tend to produce best rugby and drama

Leinster-La Rochelle looking like most competitive game, with home teams heavy favourites

Maybe it was a one-off, not to be repeated, as opposed to the start of a new trend. Even so, something wild and wacky happened at this juncture in the Champions Cup last season, even by the standards of quarter-final weekend.

Whatever it is about this juncture, the last eight often provides the best rugby and the best drama of the campaign in this competition. One thinks back to that quarter-final weekend in the 2009-10 season, when the Yellow Army invaded Dublin as Clermont took on Leinster on a lovely spring Friday evening in the RDS.

Michael Cheika’s then reigning champions were a little blessed to prevail by 29-28, a scoreline that was repeated the next day in the sunshine of the Basque Country as Biarritz overcame the Ospreys by the exact same scoreline in San Sebastián.

Munster then beat Northampton 33-19 in Thomond Park before Toulouse completed the semi-final line-up with a 42-16 win over Stade Français, the fourth home victory of the weekend.


While the tournament’s format has changed periodically, save for the inaugural 1995-96 European Cup, the quarter-finals have remained constant. There have been 27 quarter-final rounds and that weekend in 2009-10, which averaged 56 points per game, had been something of an outlier before being challenged consistently in recent times and eventually being overtaken last year.

In April last year, the four quarter-finals were, again, all won by the home side, with Leinster beating Leicester 55-24, Toulouse beating the Sharks 54-20, Exeter winning 42-17 against the Stormers and La Rochelle wearing down Saracens by 24-10.

Akin to 2010, there was pleasant weather for all four games, but the 247 points scored, at an average of almost 62 per match, as well as 31 tries, were tournament highs for the quarter-finals.

The semi-finals can often be cagier affairs, perhaps because the prize of a place in the final heightens the risks entailed in making mistakes. But not so on the final weekend of last April. Leinster beat Toulouse 41-22 in the Aviva and La Rochelle blitzed Exeter 47-28 in Bordeaux. Again the 138 points scored, at an average of 69 points per game, and the tally of 19 tries in the two games, were the highest in 28 years of semi-finals.

Maybe this tells us that coaches and players have become more liberated, more prepared to die with their boots, or as Alan Gaffney was want to say, “never die wondering”. Even in knock-out rugby, it would seem, teams are far more inclined to reject a shot at goal and possibly three points and instead go to the corner in pursuit of seven.

This sudden high-scoring trend also makes one wonder why World Rugby are again looking to tamper with the laws so excessively once more.

As we know, pedigree counts too. Although Leinster had their difficulties in the quarter-finals during the Noughties, losing three of their first five ties at that stage of the competition, they have had some of their finest days and nights in this round.

One recalls that epic 41-35 win away to Toulouse in 2006 with Felipe Contepomi triggering that version of their try from the end of the earth which Denis Hickie finished. Although they lost to Toulon in 2014 and to Saracens at an empty Aviva in 2020, Leinster’s record at the quarter-final stage now reads played 18, won 13 and lost five. Toulouse have played in 20 quarter-finals, winning 14 and losing six.

As we also know, home wins proliferate the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup. Including last year’s final as a home game for Leinster, of the 23 knock-out ties over the last two seasons there have been just two away wins, both by La Rochelle and both by one point.

In actual fact, last season’s clean sweep by home teams in the quarter-finals broke a surprising trend, for in each of the previous four seasons, there were two away wins among the four ties. There had never been a trend remotely like this in the competition’s history.

Even so, the ratio of home wins (74 per cent) is still just shy of three from four and has largely remained consistent over the last 27 years. Unsurprisingly too, Paddy Power make the four home teams favourites this weekend. Toulouse are 1-40 to win, and 21-point favourites on the handicap, against Exeter at the Stade Ernest-Wallon on Sunday.

Bordeaux, despite Damian Penaud joining Matthieu Jalibert on the list of those deemed hors de combat, are 1-12 and minus-14 point favourites at home to Harlequins who, by and large, are a wildly fluctuating force and generally should be avoided as a betting medium – one way the other. But ‘Quins are also without Danny Care and Joe Marler so perhaps Bordeaux are worth a punt after all.

Even at 1-6 or minus 10 on the handicap, Northampton do not seem bad value at home to the Bulls given the latter have left most of their front-line Springboks at home.

All of which leaves Leinster-La Rochelle looking like the most competitive game of the quarter-finals, and the surprise is that Leo Cullen’s side are 1-4 and seven-point favourites, whereas despite winning the semi-final clash three seasons ago and the last two finals, Ronan O’Gara’s side are 11-4 to win.

Either side would, of course, bite the hand off you if offered a one-point win.

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