Rugby’s most prestigious club competition has completed its pool phase. Through to the round of 16 are teams from three countries, each with a shot at the Champions Cup in May’s finals weekend in Marseille. Here’s what we have learned from the group stage.
Although Harlequins romped to a surprising domestic title last year, few expected many challengers from the Premiership when it came to Europe, yet there are five English sides through to the round of 16.
In Pool B, English teams – Leicester Tigers, Quins and Bristol Bears – hold three of the four top spots. In Pool A, Sale and Exeter Chiefs are through too.
It really is surprising to see the English challenge alive in Europe again.
Though Premiership sides won’t be the favourites – that tag goes to Leinster – it’s promising to see after a few years of England pinning their hopes on one team at a time.
Since the inaugural tournament in 1995-96, a Welsh side has never won a top flight European trophy – the first edition was the only time a Welsh side featured in the final.
This year, too, will see a final without Welsh representation.
None of the four regions managed to pick up a win on the pitch.
Cardiff were awarded a 28-0 victory over Toulouse after the French outfit’s camp returned a series of positive Covid-19 tests while the Scarlets were handed a 0-0 draw due to the travel restrictions in France, but aside from these there were losses across the board.
Yesterday the Ospreys held Wales’s final chance at a win in the pool stages.
However, they were blown away by Sale Sharks in a humiliating 49-10 defeat.
The four regions are packed with players who can call themselves defending Six Nations champions and British and Irish Lions. There really is no excuse for these sides to struggle in Europe.
Maybe the opposition is just stronger, but in the eight games completed by Welsh sides in the Champions Cup, they’ve collectively scored 121 points and conceded 310 – that’s an average match score of 15-39. It’s not good enough.
Champions from Ireland?
The four Irish provinces have been monumentally impressive across this pool phase. Of the 15 matches the sides have played, they’ve won 12.
A winning percentage of 80 is outstanding and has been the driving force for wins out of the United Rugby Championship representatives.
Leinster are rightly labelled as favourites, having averaged more than 60 points per game in the pool stage.
But it’s Ulster who have been the surprise outfit. The Northern Irish side have toppled Northampton and Clermont and have really motored in the competition thus far.
All four Irish sides are through to the knockouts, and each of them have a shot at making it to the quarter-finals – even Connacht, who qualified beyond the pool stages for the first time this year, are dangerous.
The structure of the competition has been altered because of Covid-19.
Some have been left longing for the return of traditional smaller pools as a result of the new format.
Two pools of 12 are unnecessarily confusing and can reward sides for winning just one game out of four, which seems erroneous.
A total of 11 games were hit by Covid-19, whether an inability to field teams or governmental rules interfering with play.
Either way, the competition has been hap-hazard and a return to the older format cannot come soon enough.
However, the teams dropping down to the Challenge Cup again is welcome.
It’s a great addition to the format which keeps more sides invested in Europe for longer.
The eye-catching tie when it comes to the English contenders is Exeter and Munster. The two powerhouse packs should make for quite the occasion.
Clermont will face off against Leicester in what’s set to be a cracking affair.
Further afield, the match-up between Ulster and Toulouse is going to be incredible, though you’ve got to feel for Ulster winning all of their games and getting the champions as a result.
There’s an all Parisian tie in there too, between Racing and Stade Francais, while Montpellier play Quins.