European interpro to come as provinces learn their fate

Ulster and Munster both draw the short straw in recent champions Toulouse and Exeter

 

And so it has come to pass. As anticipated coming into the fourth and final round of pool matches, Leinster and Connacht will meet in an all-Irish, Heineken Champions Cup two-legged Round of 16 on the second and third weekends in April.

The first game will take place in the Sportsground on the weekend of April 8th/9th/10th and in all likelihood Leinster will move the second leg from the RDS to the Aviva Stadium, all the more so as the odds are against them having a home quarter-final should they overcome Connacht.

Munster’s handsome 47-5 win over Wasps at Thomond Park has earned them a last 16 tie with Exeter, following their defeat by Montpellier (which also ended Glasgow’s qualification hopes).

Ulster, like Munster, are among the five sides to progress with four wins from four, but their ‘reward’ is something of a short straw, as they must face the indignant holders and five-time champions Toulouse over two legs in the last 16.

The draw has also pitted all four Irish sides in the same half of the draw, for if Ulster and Munster win their last 16 ties, they will meet in the quarter-finals. In that scenario, Ulster would be at home, although if Toulouse win, Munster would host the quarter-final at Thomond Park.

Ulster’s ‘reward’ is something of a short straw, as they must face the indignant holders and five-time champions Toulouse over two legs in the last 16. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Ulster’s ‘reward’ is something of a short straw, as they must face the indignant holders and five-time champions Toulouse over two legs in the last 16. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The winners of the Leinster-Connacht tie will face either Clermont or Leicester in the quarter-finals, with the latter having home advantage if they progress, whereas the Irish side would be at home if Clermont came through.

Ultimately, the winners of these respective quarter-finals would then meet in the semi-finals.

Privately, the tournament organizers will be mightily relieved that Toulouse have squeezed through after being restricted to playing just two of their four pool games, both away from home, and the threat of legal action made by the club’s former president Rene Bouscatel, now president of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby.

Seven French sides have reached the knock-out stages, along with five from the Premiership and all four Irish sides, with no representation from Wales, Scotland or Italy.

Connacht will be hugely disappointed to have let another winning lead slip in Paris when losing 37-31 to Stade Francais - a result which squeezed the latter into last 16 at the expense of Cardiff by a solitary point and set up a Parisian derby against Racing.

Although Connacht did earn another two bonus points to finish fifth in Pool B, ultimately the result in the Stade Jean Bouin wouldn’t have affected their final standing and, thus, a double rendezvous with Leinster.

Connacht despaired at losing yet another lead late on. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho
Connacht despaired at losing yet another lead late on. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

Munster’s bonus point win elevated them back to third in Pool A, which means they’ll renew their rivalry with Exeter, having had two titanic pool struggles three seasons ago.

“We’ve had some big battles over the last three years with them,” s aid Johann van Graan. “Obviously we had them in our pool, the 10-10 draw at Sandy Park, the 9-7 at Thomas Park, the famous Billy Holland steal. Obviously Exeter are a phenomenal team, the champions of this cup two seasons ago.”

Munster will play the first leg at Sandy Park before hosting Exeter a week later in Thomond Park.

“The round of 16 is going to be unique, the first time the Champions Cup is on points across two legs, so win or lose the first one by X amount of points, you’ve got to better that the second time around,” added van Graan.

“So it will be unique for all 16 teams, and (we’re) really looking forward to it. We know we’re going to have to go to England first up and be back here a week later.

“And to mention the impact of this virus on everybody, it was phenomenal to have everybody back tonight, families, kids and just that feel good factor of playing at 3.15pm on a Sunday at Thomond Park. It was a brilliant experience for all involved.”

Munster started superbly, scoring three tries in the first half-hour to take a commanding 24-7 lead, and had the bonus point by the 44th minute before signing off with two late tries from Simon Zebo - his second of the game after being promoted to the starting line-up as a late replacement for Keith Earls - and Rory Scannell at the death.

“It was a good performance” said van Graan. “ We wanted to make sure we won the game and if the four tries were on offer, we wanted to take them. Obviously, Leicester got five points and Quins won that game in the 83rd minute so the only thing that we could control was getting the five points but real positives out of tonight’s game.

The Munster head coach refuted the notion that his side showed more signs of variety and development.

“No, I think it was just another game in our journey; very nice to play at 3.15 at Thomond. It was brilliant to have the fans and families back, weather was good. We knew that the opposition were going to play a bit more, that would give us more turnovers and more space than last week.

“Castres was a team that did not play at all in their own half and kicked the ball long. We handled that game pretty well and we handled tonight pretty well.”

The unwell Dave Kilcoyne was a late withdrawal as well, but van Graan intimated both should be fit in time for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales in a fortnight.

“Earlsy just picked up a high leg injury strain in training, I don’t think it’s serious. I don’t want to speculate on that. Dave was just unwell. I spoke to him earlier this morning, and he said ‘Coach, I’m not good.’ So we pulled him out of the game and decided to go with Jeremy.

“He’ll definitely go to Ireland camp,” van Graan said of Earls. “We just said we didn’t want to risk him. He’ll be looked after well in the Irish camp, he just wasn’t good to go for this weekend.”

Ben Healy pulled the strings impressively at outhalf on his return to the side, as well as nailing all his kicks, and van Graan said: “We knew that Wasps were still in it if they won the game so we treated it as a knockout game. There was no specific message to Ben, just go out and enjoy it and steer the ship.

“I felt he had a really good game; the first one for Zeebs - that little chip for Zeebs - his decision making, pretty good defensively. I’m very happy for Ben, chuffed with his performance.”

Round of 16

Stade Francais v Racing 92

Toulouse v Ulster

Bordeaux-Bègles v La Rochelle

Connacht v Leinster

Sale v Bristol

Exeter v Munster

Montpellier v Harlequins

Clermont v Leicester

The two-legged ties will be played on April 8th/9th/10th and April 15th/16th/17th

Quarter-finals

Stade Francais/Racing 92 v Sale/Bristol

Montpellier/Harlequins v Bordeaux-Bègles/La Rochelle

Toulouse/Ulster v Exeter/Munster

Connacht/Leinster v Clermont/Leicester

The quarter-finals will be played over the weekend of May 6th/7th/8th. The highest-ranked club from the pool stage will have home advantage.

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