Sunday, 25 January 2015

European Rugby - Onto the Knockouts!

Last time I wrote about rugby on this blog, we were at the halfway point of the group stage of the European Rugby Champions Cup and the European Rugby Challenge Cup. A lot has happened in that time. I have yet to write about the European Rugby Challenge Cup. The main reason for that is because I have limited interest in that competition this year as the team I follow, Bath, are in the Champions Cup this season. I will say though I am surprised that there are no French teams in the quarter finals of the competition. Stade Francais, Bordeaux and Grenoble are all doing really quite well in this season’s Top 14 and yet they failed to make the last 8 of the Challenge Cup, which is all made up of teams from the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 12. I’m going to both European finals so I will likely pay a bit more attention to how the Challenge Cup knockout stages go.

In the Champions Cup, we have seen some top quality rugby, which I guess should come as no surprise to anyone. The Champions Cup went down to the wire in 4 of the 5 pools as to who would qualify, which has been pretty exciting this weekend to see how the games have played out. After 3 games I made some predictions and I would like to revisit those predictions now and see how I did.

POOL 1 PREDICTION – Clermont Auvergne to win the pool, Saracens to finish 2nd and maybe qualify. 
This happened. The final week of games from this pool featured a dead rubber match between Munster and Sale and a straight shootout for first place between Clermont and Saracens. Munster were pushed all the way by Sale but managed to get the win right at the death in the first game at the AJ Bell Stadium. This week however, Munster just ripped Sale apart, winning 65-10. That’ll be a tough one for Sale to swallow. Clermont looked the better team against Saracens today and they got the win 18-6, confirming the home quarter final. If Saracens had lost by 35 or more points, they would have been eliminated from the competition. This didn’t happen. They qualified as one of the best placed runners up on 17 points.

POOL 2 PREDICTION – Leinster to win the pool, Harlequins to finish 2nd and qualify. 
I got the Pool winner correct! Leinster pipped Harlequins in the second game of the double header, battered Castres 50-8 and drew with Wasps 20-20 to win the pool. Wasps battered Castres (you might see a theme developing here) 44-17, went to the Stoop and beat Harlequins 3-23 and as I said above, drew with Leinster 20-20. The Wasps/Leinster game became a straight shootout for the top spot, and with the game ending in a draw, both teams stayed in the same spots they occupied before the game. The draw was enough for Wasps to qualify as one of the best placed runners up on 18 points. Harlequins also finished on 18 points but Wasps had a better points difference so Quins finished 3rd. The two defeats on the bounce pretty much finished off Quins but they tried their hardest to qualify by getting a bonus point win over Castres, battering them 19-47. Castres have been really quite bad; I don’t think anyone would have predicted that. Harlequins fans might feel hard done by as they finished 3rd on 18 points, more points than Saracens got in their pool, but Saracens finished second and have qualified for the quarter finals, whereas Quins, who finished 3rd, haven’t.

POOL 3 PREDICTION – Toulon to win the pool, Leicester Tigers to finish 2nd and qualify.
Toulon did win the pool and Leicester did finish second but they did not qualify. They had the lowest points totals of any of the runners up with 13. Leicester lost to Toulon and their only getting one bonus point by the time round 5 concluded proved to be their downfall (well, that and losing to Scarlets away in round 2). They lost away to Ulster in round 6 and finished the pool with 3 wins and 13 points. Toulon lost only the one game away to Leicester, and crushed Ulster at home.

POOL 4 PREDICTION – Toulouse to win the pool, Glasgow Warriors to finish 2nd but not qualify. 
Well, I got this one completely wrong! Bath qualified as pool winners and Toulouse finished second but didn’t qualify. You could argue I should have backed my team but after 3 rounds, Bath had lost their opening two games and failed to get a bonus point in their win in Montpellier, with an away trip to Toulouse looming! Bath beat Montpellier at The Rec and got the attacking bonus point. Fans such as me allowed themselves to dream of qualification following one of the great European rugby performances by an English team in France as Bath went to Toulouse and won 18-35, getting another attacking bonus point. This meant going into the final round, Bath were second with a home tie against Glasgow. Glasgow, much like in the opener, were the better side in my opinion but wins matter in this competition and Bath got the win. With Toulouse getting beat in Montpellier, Bath qualified top of their pool. Pool 4 was by far the closest of all the pools, and it ended in spectacular fashion. Toulouse not making the last 8 is a big shock. I’m sure they will be smarting about that one.

POOL 5 PREDICTION – Northampton Saints to win the pool, Racing Metro to finish second and maybe qualify. 
I got that the wrong way round. Racing Metro won the pool and Northampton finished second, with both teams qualifying for the second round. As the pool came to a conclusion, there was a straight shootout to win the pool and a dead rubber match between Trevisio and Ospreys, with nothing on the line but pride. Treviso claimed their first win of the tournament, beating Ospreys 23-20. Northampton lost at home to Racing Metro 8-32. I would have thought Saints would have won on their own patch, but not to be. Northampton qualified as one of the best placed runners up.

I didn’t do too badly with my predictions there! Following the conclusion of the pools, all the talk moved to the knock out stages of both competitions. The quarter final and semi final draws are as follows:

European Champions Cup

Quarter Final
Racing Metro v Saracens
Toulon v Wasps
Clermont v Northampton
Leinster v Bath

Semi Final
Toulon/Wasps v Leinster/Bath
Clermont/Northampton v Racing Metro/Saracens

European Challenge Cup

Quarter Final
Gloucester v Connacht
Exeter Chiefs v Newcastle Falcons
Newport Gwent Dragons v Cardiff Blues
London Irish v Edinburgh

Semi Final
Gloucester/Connacht v Exeter Chiefs/Newcastle Falcons
London Irish/Edinburgh v Newport Gwent Dragons/Cardiff Blues

There are some tasty contests there. These matches take place over 2 weekends in April and while anything could happen in the next 9 or so weeks leading up to the games, just like with the pools I’m going to have a stab at predicting what will happen leading up to the finals.

European Champions Cup

Quarter Final - Racing Metro to beat Saracens. Toulon to beat Wasps. Clermont to beat Northampton. Bath to beat Leinster.

Semi Final – Toulon to beat Bath. Clermont to beat Racing Metro.

Final – Toulon v Clermont

European Challenge Cup

Quarter Final – Connacht to beat Gloucester. Exeter to beat Newcastle. Newport to beat Cardiff. London Irish to beat Edinburgh.

Semi Final – Exeter to beat Connacht. London Irish to beat Newport.

Final – Exeter Chiefs v London Irish

There are so many possibilities as to how these knock out stages will go, and these predictions have just been plucked out of nowhere. I obviously hope more than one English team makes the semi finals of the Champions Cup but I do feel as though based on how good the French teams are at home (generally), they will fare better at home. I’m not saying that Leinster will be a pushover for Bath, but I think of all the English teams left in the cup, they stand the best chance of making the last 4. For the Challenge Cup, that was a complete guess. I’ve no idea if Irish will beat Edinburgh then beat Newport or Cardiff, but them having home advantage for both games might help them (although they haven’t fared too well at home in the Premiership this season). What I am sure of is that we are approaching the business end of European Rugby for 2014/15, and so far, the Champions Cup has just been excellent. I expect that to continue until the final takes place at Twickenham in May 2015.