Leinster 55 v 24 Leicester
Leinster continued their formidable recent form by romping past Leicester to set up a semi-final against Toulouse. The Dubliners got off to the best possible start, Garry Ringrose selling a wonderful dummy to scythe through the Leicester midfield and touch down inside two minutes. However, Leicester rallied well and showed excellent continuity in attack, going through the phases and stretching Leinster’s defence. Their patience was rewarded with a Handre Pollard penalty as they narrowed the deficit.
But Leinster demonstrated their clinical edge. Ringrose went over for his second try off the back of a set-piece move as they again exploited Tiger’s makeshift midfield of the returning Dan Kelly and Harry Potter. Ross Bryne extended their advantage further with a penalty as the hosts started to exert their control, and it appeared the game was quickly slipping away from Leicester. However, several timely interventions at the breakdown, often from the industrious Tommy Reffell, kept them alive, and they were soon back in the game. After a concerted spell of pressure, Mike Brown opted for a quick tap-and-go, with the ball then fed out to winger Anthony Watson, who produced a brilliant acrobatic finish. Pollard’s touchline conversion made it a seven-point game heading into halftime.Embed from Getty Images
Caelin Doris’s yellow card early in the second half for a shoulder hit appeared to open the door for Leicester, but it was soon emphatically shut. Bryne extended Leinster’s lead with a penalty after the home side’s scrum turned the screw in a momentum-flipping moment. Even with fourteen men, Leinster posed a significant attacking threat. This time, Ringrose was the provider, gliding through a hole in the midfield before feeding the supporting Jamieson Gibson-Park to go over. If their third try was all about guile, then their fourth was a demonstration of power, referee Nika Amashukeli awarding a penalty try after Leicester illegally pulled down a surging Leinster maul. Charlie Clare’s yellow card made it a double whammy and all but ended Leicester’s resistance.
Leinster’s fifth try also came from the back of a maul, replacement Scott Penny peeling away and bumping off Jack van Poortvliet to score. Ollie Cracknell slightly reduced the deficit with a close-range score, but Jimmy O’Brien’s deserved score quickly cancelled it out. Potter’s interception score gave Leicester a late consolation after Brown had been yellow-carded for a high tackle, but the home side had the last say, with the maul being the weapon of choice once again, replacement John McKee touching down. It was a valiant performance from Leicester in the first fifty minutes, but Leinster’s quality eventually shone through. The Irish province always seem to have an extra gear, and the question is, can anyone stop them? Their victory was tarnished by injuries to Ryan Baird and James Lowe, and it has been confirmed the former will miss their semi-final match.Embed from Getty Images
Toulouse 54 v 20 Sharks
Five-time champions Toulouse booked themselves a place in the semi-finals with a victory over the Sharks, pulling away dramatically in the last ten minutes of an entertaining encounter. Full-back Thomas Ramos contributed 29 points, while scrum-half Antoine Dupont was typically influential as they eventually broke the South African side’s resistance. The Sharks drew first blood after Ramos and Curwin Bosch had traded penalties, scrum-half Grant Williams showing some sizzling pace to finish off Bosch’s break for a thrilling long-range score. However, Toulouse held the lead at the break thanks to Ramos’s boot and winger Juan Cruz Mallia’s score.
Toulouse extended their lead at the start of the second half, Dupont unselfishly feeding Ramos for the score after they managed to get on the outside of the visitors’ defence. But the Sharks bit back quickly, Boeta Chamberlain gliding onto Lukhanyo Am’s superb miss pass to score their second try. In a game between two enterprising sides, turnover ball proved lethal, and Toulouse’s third try sprung from their rapid transition from defence into attack. Emmanuel Meafou’s rip kick-started an attack that ended with Pita Akhi feeding Mallia for his second try.
The Sharks trailed 26-20 with twelve minutes remaining, and the match was still in the balance, but after William’s second try was ruled out for a forward pass earlier in the move, they seemed to lose their edge. Toulouse scored four times in just over ten minutes, Peato Mauvaka starting the spree after touching down off the back of a typically powerful maul. Dupont was instrumental in the next two tries, supplying Ramos to score after a flowing counterattack before feeding the substitute Arthur Retiere to go over after they overloaded the blindside. The game’s final try was all about his half-back partner, Romain Ntamack; the fly-half produced a superb solo effort to seal the victory. Toulouse’s reward is a tough visit to Dublin to face a formidable Leinster side in what promises to be a seismic encounter.
Exeter 42 v 17 Stormers
Exeter cruised past the Stormers to secure their place in the semi-finals and end the South African side’s European involvement. After their dramatic quarter-final victory, Saturday’s win was an altogether more straightforward affair, the Chiefs showing a ruthless streak as they raced into a 21-0 lead at halftime. Impressive young full-back Tom Wyatt got the ball rolling, racing onto Joe Simmonds’s beautifully weighted crossfield kick after Olly Woodburn’s mazy run had splintered the Stormers’ defence. Jack Nowell scored their second try with a typically tenacious pick-and-go before Woodburn raced over for their third off the back of a neat line-out move.
The game was all but sealed shortly after halftime, Sam Simmonds picking a superb line to carve through and score the Chief’s fourth try. Damian Willemse finally got the Stormers on the board after just managing to dot the ball down under pressure, while winger Suleiman Hartzenberg raced in for their second score after latching onto Herschel Jantjies’ clever box kick. However, any faint comeback hopes were extinguished by Jack Yeandle, who scored off the back of a signature Exeter rolling maul. Lock Marvin Orie scored a consolation try for the visitors, showing a good turn of pace after charging down Tom Cairns’s box kick. But Cairns had redemption moments later as he scored Exter’s sixth try after being fed by the excellent Olly Woodburn. Exeter’s brilliant display sees them rewarded with a trip to Bordeaux to take on the holders, La Rochelle.Embed from Getty Images
La Rochelle 24 v 10 Saracens
La Rochelle kept their hopes of defending their title alive with an impressive victory over Saracens in front of a typically vibrant crowd at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre. The hosts made a mockery of my pre-game predictions as they bullied Sarries at the breakdown and comprehensively outmuscled them around the park. The home side defended superbly, effectively negating Saracens’ attack, and a brace of tries from the superb Tawera Kerr-Barlow ensured victory. Fly-half Antoine Hastoy gave his side the perfect start with a pair of penalties as Sarries showed uncharacteristic ill-discipline. However, they weathered the early yellow storm, and Owen Farrell’s penalty got them on the board.
The English side showed flashes of promise in attack, with Max Malins being typically busy, but they were regularly thwarted by the interventions of Levani Botia at the breakdown. Hastoy extended his side’s lead with his third penalty before Kerr-Barlow scored the game’s first try, running a clever loop play with Thomas Lavault to draw in the Sarries’ defence before sprinting over. Losing 16-3, Sarries faced a tough ask, made even more difficult by the talismanic Billy Vunipola being stretchered off midway through the first half.
Saracens needed to strike quickly in the second half, but they just couldn’t break down the hosts’ stubborn defence. Kerr-Barlow’s try just before the hour made their task almost insurmountable, the scrum-half on hand to apply the finish after the superb Botia had sliced through the visitors’ midfield. Prop Ethan Mawi’s try gave the English side a sniff of a chance, but Hastoy quickly pegged them back with a fourth penalty. Faced with a fourteen-point deficit, Saracens plugged away gamely, but even when Brice Dulin was yellow-carded for a high tackle, they couldn’t penetrate the home side’s defence. The only blot on the home side’s dominant display was an injury to Will Skelton, who left the field wearing a neck brace after being injured by Tom Woolstencroft’s attempted clear-out. La Rochelle face Exeter at home in the sem-finals, seeking to reach their third consecutive final.