This year’s Champions Cup has delivered a quarter-final lineup worthy of the competition’s grand standing in the game. Montpellier, Leicester and Leinster – respectively, leaders of the French and English leagues plus the multinational United Championship – are there. Toulouse – the Champions Cup holders and most successful club in the tournament’s history with five wins – are also in the mix. As are La Rochelle, finalists last season, and the two-time winners Munster.
There is, however, a mismatch in the draw as one side of the equation is stacked with past champions while the other half can only point to four unsuccessful finals as a sign of their collective continental pedigree.
Leicester, back-to-back champions in 2001 and 2002, were not at their best on Saturday in a 27-17 win against Clermont, but still took the tie with a commanding 56-27 aggregate score. “It was piss poor,” was the captain Ellis Genge’s assessment of a staccato display that lacked the usual precision of a unit coached by Steve Borthwick.
“It’s not what we are about,” Genge said. “We train really, really tough and not to produce stuff like that. We’ve had a bollocking and we’ll sort it.”
They will have to if they have any design on beating the four-time winners Leinster, who are in imperious form and dispatched Connacht 56-20 in Dublin on Friday. “Leinster are big-game players and big boys,” Genge said. “We’ve got to be on our jobs.”
Munster are 10 points behind their rivals in the Irish pool of the United Championship but were equally impressive in beating Exeter 26-10 in Limerick, overcoming a first-leg defeat in Devon. They next host Toulouse, who needed a 75th-minute try from Antoine Dupont to edge Ulster by a single point on aggregate.
Between them, Leicester, Leinster, Munster and Toulouse have been crowned best in Europe on 13 occasions. Whoever contests the final in Marseille in May will have history on their side.
That is not to say that the corresponding quartet are simply competing for silver. Montpellier stunned Harlequins in the first leg of their tie, beating the Premiership champions 40-26 in France and then, with what many pundits this side of the Channel considered a weakened team, held off a Marcus Smith-inspired fightback to progress despite their 33 -20 defeat at the Stoop.
“Do you still think I don’t respect the competition?” asked the Montpellier director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, after the match in London where Smith missed a decisive conversion late on. “To be honest I expected him to kick the conversion,” said Saint-André, who also honored his reserve players, underlining the breadth of talent at his disposal.
That strength of depth – a consequence of club owners’ deep pockets, but also the JIFF ruling which places a required quota on homegrown talent – allows French teams to fight on multiple fronts. There are four Top 14 sides in the last eight and there will be at least one in the semi-finals with Montpellier traveling to La Rochelle, where they won 29-23 in January. Racing 92’s home game against Sale completes the set.
Sale reached this stage last year where they were soundly beaten 45-21 by La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay. They have never advanced beyond the quarter-finals and will need to be better than they were against a struggling Bristol outfit that was put away only by a 75th-minute Jono Ross try in the second leg.
Racing will be no pushovers having thumped Stade Français 55-31 across two matches. Sixth in France, they boast six members of France’s grand slam-winning squad in their ranks.
Context is the lifeblood of any sporting competition at the elite level. Given the quality of the remaining clubs, the captain who holds aloft the trophy in May will be able to state that his is the best team in Europe.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism