Gerry Thornley: So much for the French not caring about Europe
French heavyweights and England’s big two prioritising Champions Cup
Racing 92’s Virimi Vakatawa scores a try against Munster. Munster need Racing to defeat Saracens away to have any chance themselves of a quarter-final place. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It’s been a slow burner but at last the European Champions Cup came vibrantly to life over the penultimate weekend. The net effect has left the four pool winners and a fifth qualifier, Clermont, still needing another win to secure a home quarter-final.
That’s a first, and so too is a final weekend in which nine of the ten matches, as things stand, all have something tangible on the line for one of the two teams concerned, be it securing a home quarter-final or qualifying.
The only exception is the Montpellier-Connacht match. Given how Toulouse dominated for so long, Connacht showed extraordinary defiance to restrict them to a 14-7 interval lead and ultimately a 21-7 win.
The curious selection of Stephen Kerins, or more pertinently leaving one of their players of the season Caolin Blade on the bench, did not work although it would not have affected the result.
Still, it was better to have been dining at the top table than not at all, and Connacht’s campaign was still highly creditable. Besides which, confirmation of the government’s €20 million grant toward the redevelopment of the Sportsground made it a good week for the province on balance.
As feared, that was the first of three wins over Irish sides by Toulouse, Clermont and Racing. So much for the theory then that the Irish are the only ones who really care about Europe. As feared all along, not only are the French heavyweight trio prioritising the tournament this year, but ditto the English big two of Exeter and Saracens.
Furthermore, as also feared, a World Cup season has benefitted the aforementioned French triumvirate. Toulouse, Clermont and Racing were the bulk suppliers for France’s World Cup bid, where Storm Hagibis and Sebastien Vahaamahina’s brainstorm restricted them to just four matches.
Virtually uncontainable at the weekend, the Fijian-born wrecking balls, Clermont’s Alivereti Raka (who played just one game at the World Cup) and Racing’s Virimi Vakatawa (who played three) are as fit and as fresh as they’ve ever been at this stage of the season. The same is true of all their other World Cup players.
On top of which, the World Cup has left all three clubs with ground to make up in the Top 14, in fifth, seventh and eighth places, with Bordeaux-Begles and Lyon already over the horizon. Having won the Bouclier de Brennus last season, Toulouse covet a fifth European star while Clermont and Racing, who have five losing finals between them, desperately want a first.
Glasgow and their departing head coach Dave Rennie were also bitterly disappointed to have let Exeter escape with that remarkable 31-all draw from Scotstoun, even if their former full-back Stuart Hogg came within the width of the crossbar of extinguishing their hopes with his 60-metre penalty attempt from the game’s final play.
That said, Glasgow are still in the mix, albeit Northampton are better placed to complete the last eight along with Leinster and Ulster. The latter’s defeat in Clermont seemed almost inevitable after coming in at half-time with a 10-9 lead which scarcely reflected their chances.
Turning down three-pointers in Harlequins ultimately helped earn Ulster a bonus point win, but a victory of any hue was required in Clermont, where their lineout was already wobbling, which made turning down a couple of kickable penalties questionable.
The way Racing also pulled away from Munster had uncanny echoes of the events in Clermont. A classy club in much of what they do, they and the organisers have to ensure that the TMO is not as restricted in camera angles as was the case on Sunday. Not nearly good enough.
Had Munster earned a bonus point to add to their tally they would now be above Glasgow on points differential (by 12 points) and tenth in the pecking order.
In other words, Munster would ‘only’ have needed to match Glasgow’s result away to Sale next Saturday and be within 11 points of the Scots’ winning margin when hosting the Ospreys on Sunday to stay above them.
The same, of course, would have applied had they taken that late bonus point in Saracens in round four, and their hopes, while still slim, would not have looked quite so forlorn.
Mathematically, Munster would therefore have still been alive come Sunday’s 1pm kick-off against the Ospreys, as they would have needed a bonus point win while staying above Glasgow along with Racing beating Saracens on Sunday and Toulouse beating Gloucester subsequently.
Instead, Munster now also need one additional favour, namely Sale to deny Glasgow a bonus point win, or Lyon to beat Northampton, on Saturday.
Helpfully, Racing will more than likely have a home quarter-final to play for against Saracens which could, say, be the difference between facing Clermont in La Defense Arena or the Stade Marcel Michelin. Racing will have a top two seeding and home semi-final to play for as well.
But Saracens also know that a bonus point win would ensure them of a place in the last eight, and come kick-off it might that a win of any hue would suffice.
A Racing win is imperative if Munster are even to finish second in the group, and not even a couple of losing bonus points in Allianz Park and La Defense Arena would have altered that.
Leinster have been in cruise control, often swatting away second string sides (even with their own ‘second string’ in the Pro14) and without facing any heavyweights yet. Sticky opponents though Benetton have been for Leinster in recent years and throughout this European campaign, the likeliest scenario is that the four-time winners will be at home to either Northampton or Glasgow in the quarter-finals.
But, of course, should Munster yet squeeze into the knock-out stages as the eighth seeds, they would most probably meet Leinster.
That would be, eh, something.