The top seeding for the last eight of the Champions’ Cup ought to carry a pan-European red light of danger ahead, that the end of the road may be nigh.
Leo Cullen, for one, will vouch for that from personal experience now that his native province is back on familiar territory this morning, looking down on the rest as No. 1 contenders, due reward for completing the only clean sweep of the pool rounds — six out of six.
Leinster’s head coach does not need any warnings of what will be coming round the bend when the tournament revs up again at Easter after the small matter of the Six Nations.
The No. 1 seeds have, of course, been this way before and had nothing to show for it, in 2003 when Perpignan ambushed them in the semi-final at Lansdowne Road and again two years later when Leicester did for them at the same venue in the quarters.
Cullen would have experienced both anti-climactic occasions before heading off on sabbatical to Leicester, returning in time to repay the Tigers by captaining Leinster to the first of their European victories, achieved at the expense of the English club at Murrayfield nine years ago.
The ten-week gap before the start of the knock-out stages may have something to do with the fact that only one team has followed six pool wins with three more to lift the trophy — Saracens two years ago.
Of the rest, most have perished at the quarter-finals: Wasps (1998), Bath (2002), Leinster (2005), Biarritz (2007), Munster (2012), Harlequins (2013) and Ulster (2014). Four more lost in the semis: Leinster (2003), Scarlets (2007), Cardiff Blues (2009) and two in the final: Northampton (2011 to Leinster), Clermont (2013 to Toulon).
If the seedings are supposed to give the No. 1 the least difficult rout to the semis against the No. 8, then many’s a Leinster head will be scratching into over-time this morning trying to work out how they have landed up with the reigning double champions, Saracens.
They will be sorely tempted to point a finger at their northern neighbours.
When push came to shove in the rain and mud at Coventry yesterday, Ulster’s annual tendency to flounder offered the flailing holders a lifeboat to avoid going down with the rest of the English Premiership.
Historically, quarter-final home advantage proves decisive in three of the four ties.
Should that come to pass over the Easter weekend, then one of Leinster, Scarlets, Munster or Clermont will have been counted out.
Whatever happens, only one Irish head coach will be left standing: Leo Cullen or Mark McCall.
Italian job proves beneficial
The Italian influence in shaping the composition of the last eight continues to be in inverse proportion to their competitive ability on the field. Any one lucky enough to be drawn in the same pool as Italy’s token qualifier has twice the chance of making the quarter-finals than teams drawn in the four other pools.
Compare and contrast the fortunes of Toulon and Exeter. The former holders qualified largely because the luck of the draw allowed them to fill their boots with 10 from 10 against Treviso even if, ironically, they were happy to settle for nine.
In the absence of any such helping hand, the English champions had to slug it out with a trio of heavyweights Leinster, Montpellier and Glasgow. Despite giving Europe’s No. 1 ranked team a run for their money in between doing the double over the Top 14 leaders, Exeter ended up being counted out on Clydeside.
Over the course of seven Champions’ Cup seasons, Italian teams have been hit so hard so often that of the 42 ties they have lost 41 and shipped an average 38 points per match.
Time to end the privilege extended to the Italian team finishing highest in the PRO14 which turned out last season to be second from bottom.
Cole still going the distance
Back in the day when the clever dicks used to caricature them as donkeys, props were supposed to be incapable of running and thinking at the same time. Now they are the smartest species in the rugby jungle, smart enough to earn more and more for doing less than less.
As if reaping the benefit of their predecessors having been ridiculed and flogged in equal measure, new-age props are not expected to go for much more than an hour, if that long.
Of the 40 squaring up on the starting grid over the weekend, the vast majority had done their job before the final quarter. And yet one of the breed still goes the distance.
In rain, hail, sleet or snow, Dan Cole sees it through from start to finish as he did for Leicester against Racing yesterday, a throwback to the 80-minute. Should England’s tighthead go the distance throughout the Six Nations, it will be because nobody has convinced him to buy into the short-time malarkey.
Yellow peril for Nonu
Ma’a Nonu belongs to a rare breed of player, one good enough to win more than he could ever have asked for, from two World Cups to multiple other titles over the course of a stellar career.
There is one thing he will not be asking for again in a hurry and certainly not within earshot of Wayne Barnes.
As befitting a barrister, the English referee admonished Toulon’s All Black for daring to request that a Welsh opponent be condemned to the sin-bin during another Scarlets epic.
To his credit, Barnes singled Nonu out to tell him his fortune with a reprimand which will have reverberated round every dressing room: “You come and ask for a yellow card and you will get one.”
Anecdotal evidence leaves little doubt but that players chipping and chirping at referees has become an epidemic — in which event, Barnes’ riposte ought to be used as the perfect antidote.
And those dim enough not to get on-message will deserve the embarrassment of a yellow card for trying to tell the referee how to do his job.
Ref Doyle in the wars
Amid all the serious business of the weekend, the Champions’ Cup still found time for the sort of moment that makes rugby different, like the opening minute of Clermont’s tie against Ospreys when the French wing Remi Grosso clattered into JP Doyle.
The English-based Irish referee picked himself up giving every impression of being none the worse despite the towering difference in height and weight.3
Been waiting for the day JP Doyle had his cumuppance!! pic.twitter.com/kLDlgO2LnS— Sean Holley 🎤📺🏉📝🎥🏌🏻♂️ (@_SeanHolley) January 20, 2018
Leaping to his feet, JP singled Grosso out to inquire after his well-being: “Are you OK?”
It really ought to have been the other way round. And when Clermont felt suitably aggrieved at being penalised for a non-knock-on, JP had the good grace to hold his hand up.
“It’s a mistake and we all make mistakes,” he told Clermont’s players.
“Let’s get on with it.”
PRO14 going forward
Four French, two Irish, one English, one Welsh — a last eight line up which means that the PRO14 has three times as many potential winners as the English Premiership. The six pool rounds adds up to the following collective outcome for Europe’s three major Leagues:
Played 36, Won 21, Drawn 1, Lost 15.
Played 42: Won 21, Drawn 2, Lost 19.
Played 42, Won 16, Drawn 1, Lost 25.
Giants’ fall from glory
How the mighty have fallen. Those failing to make the cut include five former champions — Ulster, Wasps, Northampton, Bath and Leicester, twice winners reduced to scuffling about in the role of making up the numbers.
Fitting tribute to visionary
La Rochelle have made the European elite for the first time, as a fitting tribute to the visionary in whose memory their stadium has been named, Marcel Deflandre.
During the Second World War, when the Nazis turned the Atlantic port on the Bay of Biscay into a haven for their u-boats, Delandre and his friends in the Resistance carried out a series of sabotage operations in the docks area.
Betrayed to the Germans, Deflandre was executed on January 11, 1944, within a few short years of amalgamating the forces of two local clubs and turning them into StadeRochelais. Their tie against the exhilarating Scarlets has enough box-office appeal to draw 50,000 to the Millennium Stadium should the hosts see the bigger picture and shift the tie 55 miles east from Llanelli to Cardiff.
The organisers got away with it this time but they ought to give serious consideration to ensuring the final round kicks off simultaneously rather than risk giving some an unfair advantage, as happened to Ireland in 2007 when France knew that only a 23-point home win over Scotland would divert the title from Dublin to Paris.
Team of the tournament
Team of the tournament so far (based on the eight survivors);
15 Simon Zebo (Munster); 14 Alivereti Raka (Clermont); 13 Isa Nacewa (Leinster); 12 Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets); 11 Keith Earls (Munster); 10 Johnny Sexton (Leinster); 9 Morgan Parra (Clermont); 1 Rob Evans (Scarlets); 2 Guilhem Guirado (Toulon); 3 Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); 4 Donnacha Ryan (Racing); 5 Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets); 6 Aaron Shingler (Scarlets); 7 Alexandre Lapandry (Clermont) 8 Leone Nakawara (Racing).