James Crombie/INPHO James Lowe races clear to score for Leinster.
all to play for

Brilliant and bizarre Champions Cup weekend perfectly sets up second legs

Munster, Ulster, Connacht, and Leinster are all still alive after an enthralling round of European action.

THE DYNAMIC OF home-and-away ties in the Round of 16 was always going to be fascinating in the Champions Cup this season.

It was a decisive matter when EPCR first announced the format but even its most staunch critics will surely admit the drama is welcome this week.

While Leicester, Racing 92, and Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle all struck big blows with strong wins away from home to leave themselves ideally positioned to advance into the quarter-finals, there are no guarantees.

Harlequins lost by 14 points away to Montpellier but given the English champions’ scoring power, you wouldn’t completely write them off ahead of their second leg back in England. We know for sure that the second-leg weekend is going to be a lot of fun.

Three games in Ireland give us plenty to be excited about.

Connacht caused Leinster real problems despite losing at home in the Sportsground and though you would have to fancy Leo Cullen’s side to get the job done back at the Aviva Stadium on Friday evening, the westerners know how to stretch Leinster’s defence.

The first leg was an absorbing affair that Leinster will feel they could have won by more than five points, but then Connacht had a brilliant chance to take the lead when Jamison Gibson-Park was in the sin bin. A second try during that 10-minute period might have rocked Leinster, but Connacht came up just short.

They will travel to Dublin without pressure on their shoulders and even if Leinster will expect to improve, Connacht will surely fire a few shots of their own again.

john-porch-celebrates-scoring-their-first-try Dan Sheridan / INPHO John Porch scored early on for Connacht. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“No one gives us a chance,” said Connacht boss Andy Friend on Friday.

“No one gave us a chance tonight and probably no one will give us a chance next week, which is beaut, because they’re the games that you just go and play, just go and do what you’re meant to do.”

As for Leo Cullen, he would have liked to be moving onto the quarter-finals already. 

“You’d like it to be, ‘Right, job done, move on to the next job’ whereas now it’s like, ‘We’re still on the same job, half done.’ So it’s definitely unusual,” was how Cullen put it. 

Munster, meanwhile, lived through a madcap match of their own in Exeter as they lost 13-8, a scoreline that very much keeps them in the hunt ahead of the return leg in Thomond Park this Saturday.

It was a bizarre game at Sandy Park. Munster could and probably should have lost by a fair bit more and yet, they could have won it too given the chances they had when Exeter were reduced to 13 men by two yellow cards. It certainly is a funny old game.

On the whole, it has to be viewed as a good result for Munster given how they were decimated by injury and illness. They will likely welcome back Joey Carbery and maybe captain Peter O’Mahony for the second leg and a heaving Thomond Park would hugely help in their bid to reach the quarter-finals.

As it was, players like John Hodnett, Jack O’Sullivan, Shane Daly, stand-in skipper Jack O’Donoghue and several others shone in Sandy Park. Conor Murray’s nous was important, while 22-year-old lock Thomas Ahern impressed off the bench again. The Waterford man is a special talent and simply has to get more minutes on the pitch in order to fully unleash his game-changing abilities.

jonny-gray-competes-in-the-air-at-the-lineout-with-thomas-ahern Ben Brady / INPHO Thomas Ahern impressed off the Munster bench. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Ulster’s thriller away to Toulouse was another deeply enjoyable rugby game and Dan McFarland’s men emerged with a vital six-point lead to bring back to Belfast for Saturday’s return leg.

Again, it was a game they could have lost. 14-man Toulouse nearly pinched it at the death and their resilience after the early red card for Juan Cruz Mallía was impressive. It certainly isn’t beyond Toulouse to make up the six-point deficit at Kingspan Stadium, but it’s also a gilt-edged chance for Ulster now.

Perhaps the most impressive display of the weekend was that of O’Gara’s La Rochelle in their 31-13 win away to Bordeaux. They are a seriously powerful, balanced team with world-class players like Will Skelton, Uini Atonio, Grégory Alldritt, and Jonathan Danty.

Racing are well-placed to go through after their 22-9 win away to Stade Français in the first of two Parisian derbies in the Round of 16, while Pat Lam’s Bristol bring a one-point lead back to Ashton Gate after beating Sale on the road.

Steve Borthwick’s steely Leicester team look set to roll on ominously following their 29-10 victory away to Clermont and they are another side who appear to be best avoided.

But who knows what’s around the corner this weekend? Bring it on.

Originally published at 06.10

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