Leinster and Munster both face tough French assignments

Both provinces face tough away quarter-finals if they can get past Toulon and Toulouse

Exeter Chiefs lift the trophy after winning the Champions Cup last year. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Exeter Chiefs lift the trophy after winning the Champions Cup last year. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

It’s a measure of the task facing Leinster and Munster that their last 16 games at home to Toulon and Toulouse respectively feature four teams who have won the Heineken Champions Cup 13 times between them. These are, by some distance, the two heavyweight ties of the round.

By any yardstick, Munster drew the shortest of straws in the reigning French champions Toulouse, who won a record 20th title two seasons ago, and currently lead the Top 14 by seven points from La Rochelle and Racing 92.

Toulouse have won 11 and drawn one of their last 13 matches in both competitions and having lost in the semi-finals in each of the last two seasons to Leinster and Exeter, are mustard keen to claim a fifth star on their jerseys and win this trophy for the first time since 2010.

Despite losing their first meeting 60-19 way back in 1996-97, Munster do hold a 4-2 record over Toulouse. After beating them in the 2008 final in Cardiff they had handsome quarter-final wins over Toulouse in 2014 and 2017 on the latter’s two previous treks to Limerick.

But Toulouse were spooked by the Thomond Park factor on those occasions and aside from being made of sterner stuff these days there will, of course, be no fans this time, more’s the pity.

Munster’s Frankie Sheehan, Marcus Horan, Peter Clohessy, Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer during the Heineken European Cup semi-final against Toulouse at Stade Lescure in Bordeaux in May 2000. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Munster’s Frankie Sheehan, Marcus Horan, Peter Clohessy, Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer during the Heineken European Cup semi-final against Toulouse at Stade Lescure in Bordeaux in May 2000. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The seven French clubs currently occupy the first seven places in the Top 14 and based on that, it might appear that Leinster have the easier draw. Currently sixth domestically, Toulon are not the expensively assembled galacticos force of yore when winning three titles in a row between 2012-2013 and 2014-2015, and beating Leinster four times out of four between 2013-14 and 2015-16.

Nevertheless, after finishing ninth two seasons ago, Toulon were in fourth when the Top 14 was abandoned after 17 rounds last season. The stipulations regarding homegrown players has obliged them to focus more on French talent, although they retain big-name imports like Eben Etzebeth, Facunda Isa and Ma’a Nonu, still going strong at 38. They are also playing a much freer, offloading brand of rugby nowadays under Patrice Collazo, who previously revitalised La Rochelle.

Leinster and Munster will be further inconvenienced by meeting a week beforehand in the Pro 14 final at the RDS on March 27th, which is a week after Ireland’s concluding Six Nations game against England.

That said, the Bubblegate saga which led to the postponement of the France-Scotland game could have repercussions for the French sides too if, as expected, that match is rescheduled for Friday, March 26th, meaning three successive games for Les Bleus.

Toulouse have Dorian Aldegheri, Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack in the 31-man French squad for Le Crunch against England this Saturday, Ntamack having returned from his broken jaw in last Saturday’s 42-17 win over Brive (who had Dan Brennan starting against his former club).

Toulon have prop Jean-Baptiste Gros, lock Romain Taofifenua, French captain Charles Ollivon and scrumhalf Baptiste Serin, although Gabin Villiere will be sidelined for six weeks after suffering a hand injury in their 25-21 win over Racing last weekend when scoring his side’s only try.

Leinster’s Cian Healy in action against Toulon during the Champions Cup game agt the R Aviva Stadium in December 2015. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster’s Cian Healy in action against Toulon during the Champions Cup game agt the R Aviva Stadium in December 2015. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Louis Carbonel, third behind Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert in the French outhalf pecking order, kicked six penalties and a conversion outside Serin, who was outstanding.

Munster and Leinster were also handed away draws should they progress to the quarter-finals a week later. Munster, if they beat Toulouse, would be away to two-time winners Wasps or Clermont Auvergne, whom they beat 39-31 after trailing 28-9 at the Stade Marcel-Michelin before Christmas.

Leinster would also have a very tough looking quarter-final should they beat Toulon, as they would be away to the reigning European and English champions Exeter, or Lyon.

Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle have been afforded an achievable path to the semi-finals, away to Gloucester and then, potentially, at home to Scarlets or Sale. Pat Lam’s high-flying and prolific Bristol Bears could meet Racing 92 and Simon Zebo in the quarter-finals.

All things considered, Ulster and Connacht also drew fairly shorts straws in the European Challenge Cup last 16. Ulster will be away to in-form and free-scoring Harlequins, the only three-time winners of this competition.

Quins have won five of their six Premiership matches to rise from seventh to third in the table since sacking Paul Gustard as head coach in January amid widespread rumours of player dissatisfaction with his emphasis on discipline and structure. Jerry Flannery is one of the caretaker coaches alongside Nick Evans and Adam Jones overseen by general manager Billy Millard, the former Connacht backs coach.

Danny Care and Mike Brown have been reborn while gifted outhalf Marcus Smith is the new cause celebre of the media and pundits in England. The winners of that tie will be away to the Dragons or Northampton.

Connacht didn’t fare much better in being drawn away to two-time Heineken Cup champions Leicester, much improved under Steve Borthwick this season, for what will be a first ever competitive meeting between the pair. The winners of that last 16 tie will have a home quarter-final against either Ospreys or Newcastle.

Venues, dates and kick-off times should be finalised and announced by early next week.

Head to heads

Munster v Toulouse
1996-97:
Toulouse 60, Munster 19
1999-2000: (s-f) Toulouse 25, Munster 31 (Bordeaux)
2002-03: (s-f) Toulouse 13, Munster 12 (Toullouse)
2007-08: (final) Munster 16, Toulouse 13 (Cardiff)
2013-14: (q-f) Munster 47, Toulouse 23 (Thomond Park)
2016-17: (q/f) Munster 41, Toulouse 16 (Thomond Park)

Leinster v Toulon
2013-14:
(q/f) Toulon 29, Leinster 14
2014-15: (s/f) Toulon 25, Leinster 20 (aet) (Marseilles)
2015-16: Toulon 24, Leinster 9; Leinster 16 ,Toulon 20

Heineken Champions Cup

Round of 16
(Weekend of April 2nd/3rd/4th April)

Munster v Toulouse
Gloucester v La Rochelle
Wasps v Clermont Auvergne
Exeter Chiefs v Lyon
Leinster v Toulon
Bordeaux-Bègles v Bristol Bears
Racing 92 v Edinburgh
Scarlets v Sale Sharks

Quarter-Finals
(Weekend of April 9th/10th/11th )
QF1:
Exeter Chiefs/Lyon v Leinster/Toulon
QF2: Wasps/Clermont v Munster/Toulouse
QF3: Gloucester/La Rochelle v Scarlets/Sale Sharks
QF4: Bordeaux-Bègles/Bristol Bears v Racing 92/Edinburgh

European Challenge Cup

Round of 16
(Weekend of April 9th/10th/11th )

Dragons v Northampton Saints
Ospreys v Newcastle Falcons
London Irish v Cardiff Blues
Harlequins v Ulster
Benetton v Agen
Zebre v Bath
Leicester Tigers v Connacht
Montpellier v Glasgow Warriors

Quarter-finals
(Weekend of April 9th/10th/11th )
QF1:
Montpellier/Glasgow Warriors v Benetton/Agen
QF2: Dragons/Northampton Saints v Harlequins/Ulster
QF3: Zebre/Bath v London Irish/Cardiff Blues
QF4: Leicester Tigers/Connacht v Ospreys/Newcastle Falcons

Key dates

Round of 16: April 2nd/3rd/4th
Quarter-finals: April 9th/10th/11th
Semi-finals: April 30th/May 1st/May2nd
Challenge Cup final: Friday, May 21st, Marseille
Heineken Champions Cup final: Saturday, May 22nd, Marseille

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