European rugby returned with a bang this weekend, as the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals reminded us all that there is still plenty of life left in the 2018/19 season.
Munster got the ball rolling with a hard-fought 17-13 win away at Edinburgh, before Saracens turned on the class and routed Glasgow Warriors, 56-27, at Allianz Park. Leinster’s hopes of defending their title were kept alive on Saturday evening with a 21-18 win at the Aviva Stadium, despite an almighty scare from Ulster, whilst 14-man Toulouse pulled off a stunning 22-21 win over Racing 92 in Paris.
Those results mean that Saracens will host Munster at the Ricoh Arena and Toulouse will travel to the Aviva Stadium to take on Leinster in the semi-finals, but before we start thinking about the those match-ups, take a look at the players who made our XV of the week from a pulsating weekend of knockout rugby.
- Liam Williams, Saracens
Edinburgh’s Darcy Graham deserves a mention for an incisive counter-attacking performance against Munster, but it was hard to overlook Williams’ overall game. He was excellent in the air, as demonstrated by the ball he won over three Glasgow defenders to score Saracens’ first try, whilst he also popped up in attack, helping create mismatches and overlaps by straightening the line and drawing defenders to him.
The @Saracens machine looked unstoppable at Allianz Park ?
A warning shot fired to the other #ChampionsCup sides ?
Favourites after the quarter-finals? pic.twitter.com/ISXE0vXV2L
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) March 31, 2019
- Keith Earls, Munster
He may have had 11 on his back, but the Munster man was a threat and clear-headed leader throughout the game at BT Murrayfield from the right wing. He finished both of his tries well, with the first a particularly good example of his awareness, as he took a quick tap penalty to catch Edinburgh off their guard and wove his way through the defence for the score.
- Sofiane Guitoune, Toulouse
No shortage of impressive outside centres this week, with both Alex Lozowski and Chris Farrell deserving credit for their performances. That said, Guitoune was crucial in Toulouse’s eye-catching display in Paris, with his 66th minute interception on his own try line sparking a break that brought Toulouse three valuable points and reversed what had been growing Racing momentum. He fitted in silkily well between Romain Ntamack and the outside channels and never failed to make the right decisions when Toulouse broke the line or put the ball through the hands.
- Brad Barritt, Saracens
Saracens’ captain was in typically talismanic form on Saturday, as the spearhead of a performance from the Londoners that was as incisive as it was powerful. As a direct-runner outside of Alex Goode, he consistently found gain-line success and was able to tie in multiple defenders as he did. He went over awkwardly on his ankle late in the game and Saracens will be fervently hoping he is fit and available for their semi-final against Munster.
- Teddy Thomas, Racing 92
The dancing feet of Thomas were too good to ignore on Sunday afternoon and he shifts over from the right wing at the expense of David Strettle, who had a fine game himself. Thomas’ speed, footwork and ability to shift weight at pace and remain balanced saw him slice through the Toulouse defence on multiple occasions. His defence was also solid, as he kept his depth and width well and made the correct reads, backing them up with strong solo tackles.
- Ross Byrne, Leinster
One of, if not the most importance performance of Byrne’s career to date. He stepped up admirably for the injured Johnny Sexton and was key to facilitating Leinster’s game plan. He managed the game well, had Leinster playing in the right areas of the pitch and his form with the boot was also impressive. Kicking the winning penalty in the 72nd minute, as he was hobbling around with cramp, was a mark of the fly-half’s importance at the Aviva.
- Antoine Dupont, Toulouse
The scrum-half was effervescent in Paris, as he not only provided a threat around the fringes and instilled a high tempo in his side, but was also constantly on hand as a support-runner for his teammates’ breaks. He was responsible with his game management, too, once Toulouse lost fly-half Zack Holmes to a first half red card and his teammates began to tire with the extra work required.
- Cyril Baille, Toulouse
The French loosehead held up very well against the power of Ben Tameifuna at the set-piece and made a number of telling contributions around the park, too. He saved a certain try just minutes after Holmes was red carded and helped sap all momentum out of Racing, as the hosts looked to take advantage of their man advantage.
- Jamie George, Saracens
A man on the match performance from the hooker, who showed no signs of fatigue from the recent Guinness Six Nations. He checked off the boxes at the lineout and in defence efficiently, before proving to be an immovable thorn in Glasgow’s side as an attacking ball-handler. His carries, passing and intelligent positioning and running lines had him repeatedly unlocking the Glasgow defence.
- Cedate Gomes Sa, Racing 92
The replacement tighthead did a good job of anchoring and locking out the scrum once he came on and he helped swing momentum in the favour of the Parisian side. He made a number of dominant tackles, too, as well as helping slow down Toulouse’s ball at the breakdown. His carrying also brought impetus for Racing as they began to wear out the depleted Toulouse side.
- James Ryan, Leinster
The young lock has shone previously in a Leinster team that has run away with matches, but on Saturday he showed all of the grit and determination that is critical in seeing out a tight affair. His powerful carries around the fringes tended to bring a metre or two and kept Leinster moving forward, whilst not sacrificing ball security against a predatory Ulster pack. With others cramping up around him, Ryan looked like he could play another 40 minutes.
- Maro Itoje, Saracens
Itoje shifted into the second row in the second half and just edged out Munster’s Tadhg Beirne for this spot. Beirne shaded it in terms of influence at the breakdown, but Itoje was the more prominent ball-carrier and was pivotal shutting down Glasgow with his speed in the defensive line, even late in the game when his side had the result comfortably wrapped up. He showed no signs of rust after his recent layoff with injury.
- Peter O’Mahony, Munster
A mountainous defensive performance from the flanker, who was constantly at the heart of Munster’s efforts to repel the Edinburgh attack. With the Scots controlling and managing possession and territory well, Munster had to make numerous important defensive stands, with their captain often leading the way. His physicality in the tackle was particularly impressive, with his side able to keep players on their feet and rely on O’Mahony to make dominant solo tackles.
- Jordi Murphy, Ulster
It was a productive homecoming for Murphy in terms of performance, if not in result. He was a force at the contact area and in the defensive line for Ulster, providing them with multiple momentum-killing moments when Leinster were in attack. It wasn’t quite enough on the day, but both he and Marcell Coetzee can be proud of their contributions to a stellar game in the Irish capital.
- Viliame Mata, Edinburgh
A valiant effort in defeat from the Fijian number eight, who was the most likely ball-handler among the forwards to make something happen at Murrayfield. He gouged the Munster defence multiple times as a carrier, was a safe pair of hands fielding kicks and also made himself known defensively, putting in a complete shift in the defensive line and at the contact area. Leinster’s Jack Conan was also impressive, but didn’t quite have to shoulder so much of the burden as Mata did in his match-up.
Watch: Stephen Ferris discusses Ireland’s form heading into the Rugby World Cup
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