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Gerry Thornley: Teams are all primed up for a powerhouse finale

All four Irish sides advancing to knock-out stages for the first time is worth applauding

The Heineken Champions Cup needed that – and how. It wasn’t without its controversies, off and on the field, but the trimmed pool stages at least signed off with a flourish, and with the promise of a fascinating and expanded knock-out finale.

Although plenty of us would still hanker for the old format of either five or six groups of four, not least for its comparative simplicity, the weekend’s fourth round didn’t lack for jeopardy or indeed, with unusually favourable January weather, free-flowing rugby.

Whether fighting for a place in the Round of 16 or seeking to improve their seeding, teams certainly went for it. The nine games played yielded 78 tries and 65 points per match.

Munster found their mojo to emulate their fellow Irish provinces in registering four of the dozen attacking bonus points accumulated in the nine games. Led by a Leinster team venting their frustrations at European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) and the world over the cancellation of their game away to Montpellier, the Irish quartet scored 28 tries.

The weekend's pool finale wasn't without its troubles, three more cancellations leaving Toulouse in a state of high dudgeon after Cardiff were awarded a walkover

Irish rugby has been spoilt, but all four advancing to the knock-out stages – albeit expanded – for the first time is worth applauding. One only has to look across at our Celtic neighbours to underline the point.

And so by hook or by crook, and the help of the blunt instruments that are 28-0 walkovers (six of them) and the decisions to decree five postponements as 0-0 draws, the organisers have somehow contrived to provide us with the complete line-up for the two-legged Last of 16.

Soft targets

Reaching that goal was never going to be easy or even fair amid the Omicron wave. The EPCR are the easiest of soft targets, but given the utter lack of elbow room afforded the competition by the Anglo-French axis in comparison to the Top 14, Premiership and United Rugby Championship (URC), it is an achievement of sorts.

After all, the entire third and fourth rounds had to be abandoned a year previously, on foot of which both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cups were somehow salvaged.

The weekend’s pool finale wasn’t without its troubles, three more cancellations leaving the reigning and four-time champions Toulouse in a state of high dudgeon after Cardiff were awarded a walkover. Even their players issued a statement, and their former president René Bouscatel, in his guise as French National Rugby League (LNR) president, threatened the EPCR with legal action.

The tournament organisers will thus have heaved a collective sigh of relief, not only that the pool stages were completed, but that Toulouse made the cut.

Ironically, the Toulouse-Cardiff cancellation has distinct echoes of the fate which befell Leinster when Montpellier were awarded a 28-0 bonus point win

Yet one of the bizarre aspects of all this is that the LNR are effectively one-third of both the EPCR board and the shareholders and, let’s be honest about it, they and Premiership Rugby effectively control the competition now.

It’s worth noting that those two and the URC all signed up to these processes, and that the decision to cancel the Toulouse-Cardiff match was based on the advice of the EPCR’s independent medical risk assessment group. Imagine if they went against that advice?

Ironically, the Toulouse-Cardiff cancellation has distinct echoes of the fate which befell Leinster when Montpellier were awarded a 28-0 bonus point win.

Positive cases

Leinster and Toulouse both reported positive cases every day in the build-up to the two games, 20-plus in Leinster’s case and 20 in Toulouse. Each club maintained that a squad and staff for the matches had completed daily rounds of negative tests. Leinster cited a letter from health authorities confirming that the group could travel to France for the game. Toulouse said they acted in full compliance with the EPCR health regulations and the French health protocol.

Yet when the URC submitted Leinster’s case to have the decision reviewed, both the LNR and PRL voted against them. Hence the outraged complaints from Bouscatel and the LNR are hard to take, and also shines a light as to where his first loyalties lie.

At least Toulouse have qualified, not so Castres or Cardiff.

The terrible performance by Mike Adamson and his officials on the Friday night game between Harlequins and Castres at the Stoop has been well documented.

With six props missing, Connacht were always going to struggle at scrum time and the 'pictures' had long since been framed

With Castres deservedly leading 33-29, Adamson’s penalty count in the last 10 minutes was 5-0 to the home side. He missed a blatant forward pass by Marcus Smith and wrongly penalised Castres centre Adrea Cocagi for what should have been a legitimate turnover penalty. Finally his Irish TMO Brian MacNeice persuaded Adamson to overturn his on-field decision of “no try” when Alex Dombrandt charged off the ensuing tap penalty even though there was no clear evidence that the ball had reached the line.

Ramifications

The ramifications were significant, most obviously for Castres, who would have earned a Last 16 tie against Ulster, with Toulouse instead facing Racing and Stade Français missing out. Munster would have finished second in Pool B and faced Montpellier, with the guarantee of a home quarter-final if they went through.

Wayne Barnes and his officials were almost as bad in the endgame at the Stade Jean-Bouin. Again, the penalty count was 5-0 to the home team in the last 15 minutes and, as well as the trigger-quick yellow card for Conor Oliver, both Stade Français tries were with penalty advantage.

Stade executed two turnovers at the breakdown, once when the tacklers hadn’t rolled and another with a fairly clear case of side entry. With six props missing, Connacht were always going to struggle at scrum time and the “pictures” had long since been framed, but the decision to penalise Jordan Duggan at the last scrum on halfway (likely a touch judge call) was simply appalling. The Stade replacement tighthead Nemo Roelofse clearly lost his bind and his footing, and was first to hit the deck.

The officials also ruled out a stunning set-piece try for a mild case of blocking by the outstanding Tom Farrell, as well as penalising Jarrad Butler for the decisive penalty which put Stade through at Cardiff’s expense for the same. But the obstruction by Paul Alo-Emile on Oisín Dowling to create a gap for Nicolás Sánchez was even more obvious, yet somehow Barnes and his TMO missed that.

All the officials involved should be embarrassed, but they probably won’t be.