Despite some previous grumblings about the Champions Cup‘s convoluted format, the last sixteen provided some premium entertainment. With a healthy dosage of drama and some heartbreak, Europe’s elite (and South Africa) put on a show with several near-shocks.
A rain-sodden Welford Road started the action on Friday night as Leicester hosted Edinburgh. Leicester dominated much of the first half, several times opting to go for the corner rather than taking three points. However, thanks to their dogged defence and spoiling efforts, Edinburgh went into halftime just three points down. Despite the foul conditions, the visitors managed to create some attacking momentum early in the second half, and two Emiliano Boffelli penalties gave them a slender lead.
Leicester seized the initiative soon after, substitute Jasper Weise, who was outstanding after being introduced after halftime, barging off Jamie Ritchie for the game’s only try. Edinburgh fought valiantly, but Tiger’s scrum turned the screw, and Handre Pollard gave them a virtually unassailable ten-point lead, given the conditions. Leicester saw the game out, winning 16-6, with Head Coach Richard Wigglesworth hailing the contribution of Weise.
Munster were made to pay for a poor twenty-minute period after halftime by an impressive Sharks side in Durban. Greeted by glorious sunshine, Munster acquitted themselves fairly well in the first half, trailing by just three points at halftime thanks to tries from Shane Daly and Dave Kilcoyne. But the Sharks exerted their power in the second half despite Eben Etzebeth being forced off injured. Hooker Bongi Mbonambi twice dotted down from the back of a maul as Munster started to wilt in the heat.
The Sharks’ backs showcased some dexterous skills as the game opened up, and winger Werner Kok’s try effectively sealed the game. The Sharks would score two more tries, but Munster did show some heart, with Diarmuid Barron, Mike Haley, and Fineen Wycherly all crossing the whitewash. But ultimately, Munster’s efforts weren’t enough, the Sharks running out deserved victors, 50-35.
The Stormers dashed Harlequins’ European hopes in the heat of Cape Town. The game got off to a blistering start, with Deon Fourie scoring inside for the hosts inside the first minute after they cleverly dummied a box kick. Quins hit back straight away, a soft penalty at the restart allowing Marcus Smith to drive the ball into the corner, and Alex Dombrandt barrelled over from the back of the resulting drive. The visitors defended well for the majority of the first half, but the Stormers led 17-7 thanks to Fourie’s second try and captain Steven Kitshoff’s score.Embed from Getty Images
Quins needed to strike back quickly after the break, but they were quickly penned back in their half. Damian Willemse soon stretched the Stormers’ advantage with a stunning acrobatic finish after collecting Seabelo Senatla’s pass inside from Manie Libbock’s clever crossfield kick. Willie Engelbrecht’s score from the back of another powerful maul sealed victory for the hosts, despite a late surge from the visitors. Liberated in the last ten minutes, Quins scored three late tries through Dombrandt, Andre Esterhuisen, and Joe Marchant, the 32-28 scoreline flattering them slightly.
Leinster moved into the quarter-finals with an assured victory over a plucky Ulster side in front of a full house at the Aviva. In slippery conditions, the visitors got off to a good start, Nathan Doak slotting over a penalty to give them the lead. Ross Bryne cancelled out Doak’s strike a minute later, and Ryan Baird’s stretched over the game’s first try shortly after. Bryne extended their lead to ten points with a penalty, but Ulster hit back strongly, James Hume finishing strongly after collecting Billy Burns’ pinpoint crossfield kick.
Trailing by eight points after the break, it was crucial that Ulster stayed within touching distance of the hosts. However, after Hume’s yellow card, Jamieson Gibson-Park’s opportunistic sniping try left the visitors with a mountain to climb. Ulster didn’t give in, and Robbie Herring powered over from the back of a maul to give them a sniff of a chance. But their hopes were extinguished just after the hour, prop Andrew Porter powering over from short range to seal the victory. Leinster will host the English champions, Leicester, on Friday night as they search for a fifth European title.Embed from Getty Images
Gloucester suffered a heartbreaking late defeat away to La Rochelle, winger Teddy Thomas’s try snatching victory for the tournament’s holders. Gloucester put their recent struggles in the Premiership to one side in an outstanding display, coming agonisingly close to causing an upset. Centre Chris Harris gave them an early lead, darting over off the back of a neat lineout move. Hooker Pierre Bourgarit snuck over from close range to level the scores before Thomas gave the hosts the lead with his first try, burgling Billy Twelvetrees after Louis Rees-Zammitt failed to deal with his kick through. But Gloucester responded excellently and levelled things up going into halftime, lock Freddie Clarke producing a winger’s finish in the corner after Ollie Thorley’s scything break.
Gloucester’s skipper Lewis Ludlow was sin-binned early in the second half for dragging down a maul illegally, and scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow sniped over shortly after to give the hosts the lead. Down to fourteen, Gloucester could have easily caved; instead, they scored again, Rees-Zammit gathering the excellent Twelvetrees’ chip to dot down. Twelvetrees gave the visitors the lead shortly afterwards with a penalty and extended their lead to four points with another three-pointer after replacement Georges Henri-Crocombe was yellow carded for a dangerous croc roll on Ruan Ackermann. Poor Ackermann was forced to leave the field as Gloucester desperately tried to hold on, but the pressure ultimately told as Thomas stepped over for his second score. The hosts were once again forced to dig deep at home in Europe, and they face Saracens at home on Sunday for a place in the semi-finals.Embed from Getty Images
Exeter snuck past Montpellier in what will go down as an all-time classic, Jack Yeandle’s try ensuring their passage through to the quarter-finals after a hundred minutes of thrilling drama at Sandy Park. The game actually finished level 33-33, but Exeter won by virtue of having scored one more try. It was heartbreaking for the French champions, who fought back superbly after Zac Mercer’s red card in the second half to take the game into extra time.
The visitors have struggled on the road this season, but they sizzled early on; Curtis Langdon and Vicent Rattez’s early tries getting them off to a flier. However, the Chiefs responded well, and scores from Scott Sio and Sam Simmonds (playing against his future teammates) gave them a slender advantage. Paolo Garbisi’s penalty gave Montpellier the lead at half-time, but after the restart, a dramatic couple of minutes appeared to have swung the game Exeter’s way. Mercer had a try chalked off thanks to a needless push from Elliot Stoke, and minutes later, Mercer was sent off for a shoulder-to-the-head tackle on Christ Thsuinza. Tries from Tom Wyatt- making his first European start- and Josh Iosefa Scott made the score 26-18, and it appeared Exeter were sailing through to the quarters.
When Thomas Darmon’s score was disallowed for a knock-on after the conversion was scored, it looked like Montepellier were dead and buried. But the visitors showed supreme determination and kept going, Lenni Nouchi’s try and Paolo Garbisi’s 45-metre penalty dragging them deservedly level and forcing extra time. Exeter almost mauled themselves into the lead, while Louis Carbonel’s monster penalty attempt fell just short for the visitors. But Carbonel sliced through the Exeter defence shortly afterwards, giving the French side an unlikely lead. But the drama wasn’t over, and with the clock ticking into the red, hooker Jack Yeandle powered over, Joe Simmonds’ successful conversion booking Exeter’s place in the quarters.
A brace of tries from winger Max Malins saw Saracens overcome a spirited Ospreys side 35-20 at the StoneX Stadium. Ospreys have been the surprise package in Europe this season, and they caused Saracens a scare, racing into a 14-3 lead thanks to tries from Michael Collins and the influential Kieran Williams. The Welsh side looked dangerous, ball in hand, and their line speed halted several ominous-looking attacks. They successfully disrupted several Saracens’ mauls on their own line, but they struggled at scrum time, and Owen Farell slotted a penalty to narrow the gap after another disintegrated scrum. Malins’ powerful finish made it a one-point game at halftime, with Ospreys leading after soaking up waves of pressure.
Owen Williams stretched the away side’s advantage with two penalties after the break as the Welsh side started to believe, backed by their vociferous travelling support. But Saracens quickly drew level, Andy Christie collecting Alex Goode’s kick ahead and feeding Malins, who sprinted over. Farrell gave his side the lead with a penalty, and Ospreys looked dead and buried when Duncan Taylor intercepted Rhys Webb’s attempted quick line out. Hooker Tom Woolstencroft’s late try added some gloss to the scoreline, and Saracens will head to the south of France next weekend for a showdown with La Rochelle.Embed from Getty Images
Five-times champions Toulouse cut loose in the second half against the Bulls to seal their place in the quarter-finals. After a cagey opening fifty minutes, Toulouse led 12-9, with Thomas Ramos and Chris Smith trading penalties. However, the home side started to assert their dominance, with lock Emmanuel Meafou crashing over for the game’s first try. Moments later, winger Matthis Lebel powered over in the corner, superbly fending off the cover defence. Substitute Thibaud Flament killed off the Bulls’ hopes with Toulouse’s third try, collecting Antoine Dupont’s chip over the top to dot down. Toulouse will face the Sharks next Saturday in what promises to be a mouth-watering contest.