Irish provinces have all to play for in second legs of Champions Cup last-16

Munster, Leinster and Ulster all playing at home with quarter-final places on the line

Feelings are mixed on the merits of the two-legged Round of 16 ties in the Heineken Champions Cup but the first legs have set things up intriguingly for next weekend's return meetings. Irish venues host three games which are all one-score affairs and very much in the balance.

Yet feelings were also mixed as whether first leg outcomes were satisfactory or not.

Leinster would probably have taken a five-point lead into next Friday's return meeting with Connacht at the Aviva (kick-off 5pm) following last Friday's absorbing first leg 26-21 win at the Sportsground but Leo Cullen wasn't so sure afterwards.

“It’s a very hard question, isn’t it, because you always want more. It’s your natural greed, particularly when you’re 23-11 ahead and playing down the slope, you’re hoping you’ll kick on at that point.

“It doesn’t quite play out like that as we know, but our noses are just about in front. It’s better than behind five points behind,” he said laughing.

“Whatever the situation was, it was always going to be a tricky dynamic. The big thing is it’s a great contest and I think it’s a positive celebration of Irish provincial rugby when you see how much it means to the two teams.”

For Connacht, as with the first leg, it's another free shot. "No one gives us a chance," said Andy Friend. "No one gave us a chance in the first leg and probably no one will give us a chance next week, which is 'beaut', because they're the games that you just go and play, just go and do what you're meant to do.

“And I know and we know that if we do that we can beat any team. And as good as Leinster are, with all the quality they’ve got, we caused them some issues. Now they’ll be better next week but we will too. So we go up there with nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

When Jacques Vermeulen scored Exeter's second try on half-time to put the home side 10-0 up, with Alex Kendellen their latest injury casualty and his replacement Jack O'Sullivan in the bin, Munster would have been content to come away with just a 13-8 defeat.

The tie is now set up nicely for next Saturday's second leg at Thomond Park (kick-off 3pm), with both Peter O'Mahony and Joey Carbery expected to return.

The winners of the Munster-Exeter tie will face either Ulster or Toulouse in the quarter-finals. Before kick-off in Saturday's thriller at Le Stadium, Ulster would have been more than content to take a 26-20 lead back to Belfast for next Saturday's second leg against Toulouse (kick-off 8pm). But they weren't shouting from the rooftops given Toulouse had winger Juan Cruz Mallia sent off in the 11th minute and they lead 26-13 toward the end.

“At the back of my mind is always our performance and we could have been taking a larger points difference going back to Belfast,” Dan McFarland admitted. “But obviously if you’d offered me six points and winning in Toulouse before, I’m not sure anybody wouldn’t take it.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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