Ollie Phillips: Four English sides should make it to top European quarters
As the first leg of the European Champions Cup round of 16 begins this evening, I am confident that all but one of the English sides will progress through to the quarter-finals.
While some of the ties look mighty close, there’s enough grit and flair in the Premiership to make the difference. It also helps that the English sides have dodged the traditionally strong teams at this stage.
Leicester Tigers are top of the Premiership at the moment and have earned themselves a tie with Clermont.
While their stadium ranks as one of the best in European rugby, Clermont are nowhere near as strong as they used to be.
Steve Borthwick’s Tigers have that hard edge, and while they’re not littered from one to 15 with absolute stars, they have a really tough squad who have learnt how to win. They have big game players in George Ford and Ellis Genge and have developed a consistency in knockout rugby.
They made it to the final of the Challenge Cup last season and have progressed into this year well. Clermont are never easy to play but Leicester will fancy themselves.
Harlequins are amazing to watch – we saw that last Sunday against London Irish. You can score five but Quins will score six – that’s their mentality.
They begin away to Montpellier in what will be a tough European fixture up front. I think the French outfit will be able to deal with the English Champions’ centre Andre Esterhuizen because they’re used to coping with that style of player domestically.
The key to the contest could be in Quins’ props Joe Marler and Will Collier, who are heading up a really impressive scrum in the Premiership thus far this season.
This might be a tight one, but I think Quins having the home tie in the second leg could be crucial here.
Exeter Chiefs aren’t what they were when they won the title in 2020, quite simply, but neither are Irish side Munster. This is one of those ties where the home side will need to bank as many points as possible because any decisive match at Munster’s fortress Thomond Park is incredibly difficult .
Munster have the European historic pedigree but Exeter’s success is more recent. With Chiefs, though, it’s about what they want to achieve.
They have a number of players moving on – and Munster are losing their coach – so will the teams look to go out on a high for their leaving personnel or are they already on the beach? Exeter should snatch this one if they can bank the points.
Bristol Bears & Sale Sharks
The final match is where an English team will fall – and only because the tie is between two Premiership sides.
Bristol Bears and Sale Sharks is arguably the least exciting tie but the Bears just aren’t clicking at the moment so I would back Sale here.
Their rugby is a little boring but they get the job done. I just hope this all-Premiership affair doesn’t dampen a brilliantly poised fortnight of European rugby.
Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development and behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn.