Sport Writer Dan Hague reviews the climax of the pools, as Saracens overcame off-field adversity to earn one of three remaining spots in the quarter-finals.
Last weekend saw the European Rugby Champions Cup group stages come to a thrilling conclusion, and we now know the quarter-final line-up. Racing 92 will meet Clermont Auvergne in an all-French grudge match. Meanwhile, Ulster travel to last year’s semi-finalists, Toulouse. The second-placed team in the Gallagher Premiership, Northampton Saints, will make the long drive down the M5 to face Exeter Chiefs. Yet the most mouth-watering quarter-final will be Saracens, a club in total chaos off the field, taking on Leinster, in a rematch of last year’s final.
Heading into round six, Leinster, Exeter, Toulouse, Racing and Clermont had all secured their places in the quarter-finals. Leinster bulldozed their way through pool one, scoring the highest number of tries and conceding the joint-lowest, on their way to six wins out of six.
Exeter were similarly emphatic, they won all their games barring a thrilling draw away to Glasgow Warriors. In pool five, Toulouse won all six games but accumulated the same points total as Exeter, and they missing out on the second seed at the expense of the Devon outfit on try difference. Racing and Clermont both headed into the quarter-finals with one loss on their record.
Ulster travelled to Bath in search of a win to secure their place in the quarter-finals. Both teams traded first-half scores with tries from Marcell Coetzee and Ruaridh McConnochie. However, Robert Baloucoune and Will Addison scored for Ulster, putting them in control during the second-half. It was an eventful game for Bath replacement Ross Batty. He scored quickly, but this was juxtaposed with a high tackle on John Cooney that was sent off. Ulster ultimately ran out 22-15 winners, which was enough to send them through to the quarter-finals.
With a victory over Lyon, Northampton could keep their hopes of a Champions Cup quarter-final alive. Lyon took a first half lead with tries from Felix Lambey and Liam Gill. However, in the second half the game turned on its head. The lead changed hands twice with Northampton and Lyon trading blows like heavyweight boxers, before the Saints secured an eleventh round knockout thanks to tries from George Furbank and James Fish. The match finished 36-24 and Northampton now had to wait for other results to learn their fate.
Defending champions Saracens had known for a month that they would have to beat Racing in their final pool match to stand a chance of progressing, but they entered the game in a state of utter crisis. Just hours before kick-off, Premiership Rugby announced that the club, who have won an unprecedented seven major trophies in the past five seasons (including three Champions Cups), were to be relegated from the English top-flight at the end of the season, as they have been unable to get their wage bill under the salary cap.
Last November, they were deducted 35 points for similar violations relating to the previous three seasons and now, after failing to clean up their act, face the prospect of playing in the second tier of English rugby next season. This scandal has rocked the sport to its core and is only just beginning, and it is safe to say that rugby has never seen something quite like this.
Nevertheless, Saracens still had a job to do on the pitch. They began their encounter with Racing at a blistering pace, scoring two early tries.
The momentum soon shifted when Racing brought the score to 17-24 in their favour, thanks to a Virimi Vakatawa brace and a Louis Dupichot intercept off Owen Farrell. To make matters worse, Will Skelton was sent off in the 39th minute for a reckless high tackle. Nonetheless, Saracens showed typical resilience to fight back in the second half, turning things around to win 27-24.
Saracens’ failure to get the four-try bonus point confirmed Northampton’s spot in the knockout stages and left them hoping that Gloucester would not oust them out of the quarter-final line-up with an improbable win in Toulouse. Any concerns quickly evaporated though, as the Cherry and Whites were soundly beaten setting, up a potential epic against Leinster.
Champions Cup Quarter-Finals:
Matches to be played on 3rd/4th/5th April
Clermont Auvergne vs Racing 92
Exeter Chiefs vs Northampton Saints
Leinster vs Saracens
Toulouse vs Ulster