Who would have thought only five weeks ago, with seven of the 12 Champions Cup round 2 games postponed or cancelled due to Covid related issues, that the round of 16 ties would be in a position to proceed, as scheduled, over consecutive weekends in early April.
For that, the tournament’s beleaguered organisers EPCR deserve credit. The nightmare scenario surrounding Covid outbreaks in numerous squads and the fallout from having to apportion blame and match points for issues outside the control of the respective team managements have been difficult.
Leinster were furious when Montpellier were awarded five match points due to a Covid outbreak in their squad in round 2 which has impacted on their ranking for the knockout phase.
EPCR dodged a bullet when champions Toulouse snuck into the round of 16, courtesy of a late win for Harlequins over Castres and a penalty at the death against Connacht that propelled Stade Francais to the next phase on points difference.
Without those results, the holders were out and a potentially explosive situation for the tournament avoided given Toulouse were threatening legal action against the organisers. That could have got really messy.
Toulouse, like Leinster for their cancelled trip to Montpellier, insisted they had a fit squad, capable of taking to the field against Cardiff last weekend. With the depth they have, it’s very likely they would have fared better than the 28-0 defeat posted against them by the organisers.
To be fair to EPCR, there is more involved from a medical perspective than the general public is aware of. All the Covid related issues impacting a squad are adjudicated by an independent team of medical experts in a risk assessment team.
Despite the many flaws in reaching this point, one hopes the tournament can now proceed unhindered by matters outside rugby. As it happened, despite losing another three pivotal games to Covid last weekend, the tournament is set to witness some outstanding clashes next April, with the quarter finalists decided by the aggregate score over two legs, offering something novel from a rugby perspective.
It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Ulster are entitled to feel somewhat aggrieved that their unbeaten run through the pool stage and second seed finish eventually counted for little as it pitted them against the champions, Toulouse.
The trick for Ulster is to stay within touching distance on the scoreboard after the opening contest at the Stade Ernest-Wallon. All the higher ranking teams in this phase are rewarded by hosting the second leg and, as a result, will know exactly what they need to do to advance to the last eight. If Ulster manage that in France, they will be set up for a cracker back in Belfast.
Munster will watch those games with interest given that if they account for Exeter Chiefs over their two-legged affair, they will meet whoever emerges from that pairing. If Ulster make it through, Ravenhill will host that quarter-final. Ulster’s young backline has set the tournament alight recently but their inability to put sides away, as evidenced in their last two outings against Northampton and Clermont, will have to be rectified.
Should Toulouse progress, we could see a repeat of last season’s quarter-final where the French emerged victorious in a tight game. That potential clash will offer a true barometer of Munster’s progress this season.
Before that can be even contemplated, Munster have to navigate their way through those back-to-back games against Exeter. The Chiefs have regressed somewhat from the high of winning the English Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup double in 2020 but have sparked a bit of a revival lately.
Their game against Montpellier on Sunday proved an exhilarating contest from start to finish. The French were unrecognisable for their shambolic efforts against Leinster the previous week, no real surprise given they made 14 changes and recalled all their international stars. It’s issues like this that really undermine the competition. Based on their performance on Sunday, you could see exactly why they sit fourth in the Top 14 at present.
Exeter were under extreme pressure from the gargantuan Montpellier pack but, impressively, found a way back into the game and could well have won. Their No 8 Sam Simmons was outstanding and reminded everyone why Warren Gatland selected him for last summer’s Lions tour.
At least Munster have recent experience of Sandy Park, a venue reminiscent of the old Thomond Park. They emerged with a creditable 10-10 draw back in December 2018 but had to rely on a late Billy Holland lineout steal to win (9-7) in a fraught return fixture a month later. Those back-to-back games will be equally tight this time out but knowing what they have to achieve for the second leg in Limerick will be a distinct advantage.
To add further intrigue, this side of the draw offers a big Irish flavour with the winners of Leinster’s round of 16 games against Connacht in line to meet further Irish opposition should Ulster or Munster progress all the way to the semi-final.
Interestingly, with Munster’s higher ranking from the pool stage — Leinster finished fourth as a consequence of the Montpellier cancellation — Johann van Graan’s men would have home advantage in that potential encounter.
Under existing arrangements, that would see the game staged at the Aviva Stadium, not exactly alien territory for Leinster. If that eventuality arises — remember you can’t stage the semi-final on your home ground — then Munster should move heaven and earth to play the game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Given the last European clash between the sides was the 2009 semi-final, also played on GAA territory in Croke Park, it would attract massive interest.
Leinster will be overwhelming favourites to account for Connacht over their two-legged affair and, if so, will meet whoever emerges from the round of 16 clashes between Leicester Tigers and the tournament’s nearly men Clermont Auvergne.
Right now Leo Cullen’s charges are in a strong position to make it all the way to the penultimate stage but, with so many players certain to feature for Ireland in the Six Nations, much depends on their state of fitness at the end of that demanding seven-week block.
Munster’s opening half performance against Wasps last Saturday was far more representative of the skill set within the group. In contrast to the two games against Castres, there was far more creativity, excellent launch plays of line outs, midfield distractions that stressed the Wasps defence and created space for Andrew Conway, Mike Haley and Simon Zebo out wide.
When Munster play to their strengths in the back three — remember Keith Earls has to come back into the equation — then they are capable of challenging the opposition try line in a variety of ways. To progress to a first European final in 14 years, Munster must continue to build their attacking options, as evidenced last Sunday, and become less reliant on the maul and five metre pick and drives, productive and all as they are.
The key is in forcing opposition defensives into making quick defensive reads under pressure. Being less predictable in attack is a key element in that. The disappointing thing for Munster is, just when they have rediscovered their attacking mojo after all the Covid disruptions, the squad breaks up once again due to the requirements of the national squad heading into the Six Nations.
Ironically, the next time Munster select from a full deck is likely to be their URC game against Leinster on the weekend preceding their return to Champions Cup action. That game offers both squads the perfect opportunity to get things up and running in a highly competitive environment.
Hopefully, all the Irish players return to the provinces after a fruitful Six Nations campaign, primed and ready for European action, devoid of any further Covid challenges. Now that’s something to look forward to.