Fortune favoured Leinster over the weekend, and a small fortune is coming their way to boot, but there was almost a final sting in the tale. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, so to speak, had Andy Goode landed his last-ditch drop goal at the end of Wasps' 20-20 draw at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday, Leinster would have ended up facing Toulon away for the second year running.
As it was, their joy at the way yesterday’s results contrived to give Leinster a first home quarter-final at the Aviva since beating Cardiff 34-3 en route to their last European Cup success in 2012, when they entertain Bath on the first weekend in April, was tempered by the ensuing semi-final draw. As with Munster in each of the past two seasons, Leinster have not been blessed with home-country advantage in the last four.
If Leinster do beat Bath in the quarter-finals, the odds are it will be a stay of execution in terms of playing Toulon on French soil for the second season running, as the back-to-back champions will be strong favourites to beat Wasps at home in the quarter-finals.
That is one of three French-Anglo affairs in the last eight, and the semi-final draw has also given the winners of the Clermont-Northampton tie home-country advantage against either Racing Metro or Saracens. This raises the distinct possibility of the Leinster-Bath quarter-final being the only knockout tie outside of France before the final, when the organisers will have just two weeks’ notice under the newly rushed knockout stages to sell a potential all-French final at Twickenham.
Meanwhile, in the European Challenge Cup, Connacht, having secured an away quarter-final at David Humphreys’s Gloucester, thanks to Saturday’s win in La Rochelle, have the carrot of home-country advantage in a semi-final against Exeter, who beat them twice in the pool stages, or Newcastle.
A home quarter-final, as a bonus on the seasonal itinerary, is the most lucrative fixture any club in Europe can have, and the tournament rules still incentivise home quarter-finals, with an increase from 50 per cent to 65 per cent for moving the tie to a bigger venue.
With Bath also certain to travel in larger numbers than Toulouse would have done, Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson will be particularly content with the way the quarter-finals have panned out. Moving the game to the 50,000-capacity Aviva Stadium should ensure gate receipts in excess of €1 million, with Leinster in line to earn €750,000-plus.
“It’s massive to be at home. We’d back ourselves against anyone with a full group,” said Matt O’Connor in the hope that Leinster would obtain a home tie following Saturday’s draw at the Ricoh Arena. “In my coaching in Europe, I’ve been away three times in quarter-finals to the ultimate winners. The first one was Leinster,” he said, in reference to Leicester’s 17-10 defeat in 2011 and their 21-15 defeat to Toulon two seasons ago, as well as last season’s 29-14 loss to Toulon with Leinster.
Saturday's draw came at a cost, with Dave Kearney likely to be sidelined for at least a few weeks due to the shoulder injury he sustained courtesy of Ashley Johnson's charge into him from the kick-off, with the Irish management also due to assess Eoin Reddan (knee) and Jamie Heaslip (shoulder). And therein lies the rub, for as the biggest bulk suppliers to the Six Nations, Leinster are even more vulnerable, all the more so as the quarter-final now comes a fortnight after the Six Nations finale, with both the semi-final and final compressed into the ensuing four weeks.
“After the international bloc, we’ll try to keep fighting in Europe,” said O’Connor. “There’s a bit of a break in the season now where we can look at things, regroup and be better moving forward. The frustration of the new schedule is an issue because we have a European quarter-final just a week after the Six Nations finishes. There’s nobody that gets hit harder than us. ”
Ultimately, then, when Leinster management, players and fans alike finally drew breath after a fascinating, ever-changing final weekend of the European
, their overall contentment would have been slightly sullied.
Leinster went into yesterday’s final matches needing Montpellier to deny Toulouse a bonus-point win and so offset a quarter-final away to Guy Noves’s faltering four-time champions or, failing that, Glasgow to deny Bath a bonus-point win by a margin of more than 14 points at the Rec and so prevent a quarter-final away to Bath.
In the event, Toulouse’s surprise 27-26 defeat at Montpellier and Bath’s 20-15 win over Glasgow ensured Leinster would host Bath in the last eight. Leinster have won five of the sides’ previous six meetings, all of them in the pool stages, the most recent of which was Leinster’s 52-27 win at the Aviva in December 2012 in front of a crowd of 46,365.
On foot of the quarter-final and semi-final draws, Toulon were hardened to 11/10 favouritism by Paddy Power ahead of Clermont and Racing Metro, with Leinster joint fourth favourites at 10/1.