England will have a record five representatives in this season’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals with three French Top 14 sides completing the field.
Incredibly, no sides from Ireland, Wales, Scotland or Italy have qualified for the knockout stages.
A pulsating final weekend of pool stage action saw Exeter qualify for the last eight in dramatic fashion by beating Ospreys 33-17 and winning Pool Two on points difference.
And the Chiefs’ achievement broke the previous English record of four clubs that made the European Cup quarter-finals in 1998.
Two of the last-eight clashes in early April will be all-Aviva Premiership encounters.
Top European seeds Saracens will host Northampton after Saints qualified as one of three best runners-up, while Exeter can look forward to tackling Wasps at the Ricoh Arena, a ground where they have already won this season.
Elsewhere, Leicester will have home advantage against Stade Francais, while Racing 92 host Champions Cup holders Toulon.
Leicester won Pool Four, with Stade finishing second, but Stade’s bonus point victory over the Tigers ensured a best runners-up spot.
And with the winners of quarter-final one — Saracens against Northampton — meeting quarter-final two victors of Wasps and Exeter in the semi-finals, it means an English Champions Cup final representative is guaranteed.
Exeter’s progression caught most by surprise, including their coach Rob Baxter. The Chiefs’ 33-17 bonus point victory over Ospreys at Sandy Park saw them through on points difference after both teams and French challengers Bordeaux-Begles all finished level in Pool Two. The three-way tie on 16 points was separated under tournament rules by results of games between the three clubs, with Exeter and Bordeaux, who were surprise 37-28 conquerors of Clermont Auvergne, then still tied, which meant points difference being utilised and ultimately working in Chiefs’ favour.
Exeter ran in five tries — two each from outstanding wing James Short and number eight Thomas Waldrom, plus a Don Armand touchdown — to triumph, with Gareth Steenson adding three conversions and Will Hooley one. But the Ospreys crashed out after scoring an early Hanno Dirksen try and claiming a late penalty try, while Dan Biggar kicked seven points, and Wales’ wait for a top-flight European quarter-finalist — they last achieved it in 2012 — goes on.
Baxter said: “Qualifying out of this pool was very unlikely. Anyone who laid a bet on it has probably made a fortune!”
The quarter-finals take place on April 8-10.
European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals rankings:
1 Saracens (winner Pool 1, 28 points); 2 Leicester Tigers (winner Pool 4, 23 points); 3 Racing 92 (winner Pool 3, 22 points); 4 Wasps (winner Pool 5, 20 points); 5 Exeter Chiefs (winner Pool 2, 16 points); 6 RC Toulon (best pool runner-up, 20 points); 7 Stade Francais Paris (second best pool runner-up, 19 points); 8 Northampton Saints (third best pool runner-up, 19 points).
(1) Saracens v Northampton Saints (8),
Wasps v Exeter Chiefs (5),
Racing 92 v RC Toulon (6),
Leicester Tigers v Stade Francais Paris (7).
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