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Cream rising to top again in Champions Cup – Andy Goode

By Andy Goode
Dublin , Ireland - 20 May 2023; Gregory Alldritt, left, and Romain Sazy of La Rochelle lift the trophy after during the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and La Rochelle at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Champions Cup has had its detractors in recent years but it’s still the best club competition in the world and the cream is rising to the top again.

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The new format may mean a couple of teams have made it through to the knockout stages with just one win on the board but it did its job in reducing the number of dead rubbers in the pool stages and getting us an extra round of the serious stuff at this time of year.

I could see the attraction in bringing in an FA Cup style draw from this point on to create even more jeopardy but I do think it’s right that teams are rewarded for their form during the pool games and I like the fact you can map out who will face who in the quarter-finals next weekend.

History tells us you only normally get a couple of away wins out of eight Champions Cup knockout ties, with home sides winning 71 per cent of the time, and my money is on La Rochelle and Bath to be the big winners on the road.

Stormers
Stormers players celebrate following their victory during the European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 4 Rugby Union match between Stormers and Stade Rochelais (La Rochelle) at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town on December 16, 2023. (Photo by Gianluigi Guercia / AFP) (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images)

The champions have to travel to South Africa to face the Stormers but the trip to Cape Town isn’t anywhere near as daunting as going to Pretoria with all the issues associated with altitude and they should have won there back in December.

They’ve got even more of their big men back and firing now too and I think the physicality of the likes of Will Skelton, Uini Atonio, Levani Botia, Greg Alldritt and Jonathan Danty will get them over the line.

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Bath may not have quite the same giant humans as La Rochelle but the back row of Ted Hill, Sam Underhill and Alfie Barbeary is enough to cause any team problems and they definitely have the edge over Exeter in the halfbacks with Ben Spencer and Finn Russell.

The Chiefs have surpassed everyone’s expectations so far this season but they’re an extremely young side and a few cracks have just started to show in recent weeks so I think there’ll be an away win at Sandy Park too.

Saracens are normally a team you can back to win on the road in a major knockout game but they were hammered 55-15 in Bordeaux in January and the absence of Owen Farrell is a massive blow to their hopes.

Matthieu Jalibert
Bordeaux-Begles’ French fly-half Matthieu Jalibert celebrates as he runs to score Bordeaux’s sixth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 rugby union match between Union Bordeaux-Begles (UBB) (FRA) and Saracens (ENG) at the Chaban-Delmas Stadium in Bordeaux, south-western France on January 14, 2024. (Photo by ROMAIN PERROCHEAU / AFP) (Photo by ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
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That is one of as many as five repeat fixtures from the pool stages, which is something that will probably never happen again once the format is tweaked, but I don’t see that as being a major issue at all.

It didn’t look ideal when the Round Of 16 match-ups fell that way at the end of January but we’ve had a break of almost three months since then and now they just feel like intriguing standalone fixtures, with the recent meetings adding a bit of extra spice if anything.

If things go to form, there’ll be a couple more repeat match-ups in the quarter-finals as well. Leinster are odds-on favourites to beat Leicester and that could set up a mouth-watering clash with La Rochelle in Dublin and I think Toulouse will be too strong for Racing so they could be welcoming Bath to the south of France again.

Fixture
Investec Champions Cup
Stormers
21 - 22
Full-time
La Rochelle
All Stats and Data

Then I think Northampton will be welcoming the Bulls and Bordeaux hosting Harlequins to complete the quarter-final line-up and, as well as home advantage counting, I think that shows that the cream is rising to the top as it always does in this competition.

The English clubs had a fantastic opening weekend back in December with seven of them winning in the same round of the Champions Cup for the first time ever, despite the fact they had been written off due to the financial issues in the Premiership.

However, things were always likely to even themselves out a bit over the course of four rounds and we have ended up with a very balanced split of six clubs from the Premiership, five from the URC and five from the Top 14 in this year’s Round Of 16.

Stade Rochelais player Will Skelton celebrates on the final whistle during the Heineken Champions Cup Final between Leinster Rugby and Stade Rochelais at Aviva Stadium on May 20, 2023 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

If it goes the way I think it will, there’ll be at least a couple of teams from each league in the quarter-finals next weekend as well and then it’ll be the teams with the pedigree at this level and the greater power in their game that prevail.

Knockout rugby is a different beast and they used to say defence wins championships, it still does to a certain extent, but nowadays it’s power and physicality that gets you over the line more often than not in big one-off games.

Fixture
Investec Champions Cup
Exeter Chiefs
21 - 15
Full-time
Bath
All Stats and Data

We’ve seen that in the World Cup and Six Nations, as well as in the latter stages of the Champions Cup in the past few years, and you can’t look past the usual suspects of La Rochelle, Toulouse and Leinster on that basis.

It’d be great to see a side like Northampton with their free-flowing attacking game, combined with a bit more pragmatism and steel this season, crash the party but sheer size and experience is likely to count when it comes to the quarters and semis.

There’ll no doubt be some phenomenal rugby this weekend with a bit of South African sunshine and some English endeavour adding to proceedings but expect the French and Irish juggernauts to be the last ones standing in the weeks to come.

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Abe 2 hours ago
Waratahs 'counter-culture' limits Wallaby options for Joe Schmidt

Not a fan of your picks. McReight is good at club level but he is too small for international level and has consistently disappointed there. Better to go for larger guys. Kemeney, Valentini, Hooper, Leota, Samu, Swinton, etc. Aalatoa and Nonga are woeful scrummagers and don’t offer much around the field. Wallabies will not win if the scrum falls to pieces. The fact that Faamissli hasn’t been developed is a tragedy. Need a scrum that doesn’t give away penalties. So looks like a Talakai maybe instead. Best scrummagers need to be selected. McDermott runs the ball too much and doesn’t fit into a structured attack like Schmidts. Gets isolated too often. Ok off the bench late but not for 60 mins. Goal kicking has to be one of the top 3 points for a 10 so that does in Gordon and O’Connor. Be better off going for lynagh on that front. Donaldson and Noah seem to be doing best of the established names. QC a better mentor type guy than OConnor as well if he’s playing. Daugunu has been the most consistent 13 and breaks the line a lot so must be in the squad. Joost has also been good. Richie Arnold playing well for Toulouse and is a preeminent lineout jumper so needs to be in. Latu also playing well for La Rochelle and is better scrummager than the Aussie choices so should be in. The big guy at the Tahs Amataroso I think it is needs to be developed as well. Otherwise the team will be too small. Hodge is a better choice at fullback than Wright. Latter makes too many mistakes. Not sure if Hodge available.

7 Go to comments
T
Turlough 6 hours ago
Four Leinster talking points after latest Champions Cup final loss

First of all: hats off to Toulouse an outstanding performance. Duponts kicking was phenomenal. Twice he challenged Keenan with amazing clearances from his 22 in extra time. Result was territory deep in Leinster half in the early part of extra time which lead to 2 penalties and the game. Remember also his two 50:22s? Now to Willis/Dupont. ANY slight isolation by a Leinster player resulted in a turnover penalty. How many turnovers in the Toulouse 22? Leinster’s defense was immense, they had opportunities in attack but they honestly looked like they had not spent enough time passing the ball in the training in the weeks preceding the final. Game management was poor. Toulouse’s scrum had crumbled. At 15-15 Leinster had a scrum advantage in a position that would be kickable for a scrum penalty. Leinster played on and missed a long range drop goal. You MUST take the scrum surely? Win penalty and its a shot at goal to win with time up. No penalty and you can attack and drop goal whatever. The distance from sideline penalties from Byrne was shocking. If you are kicking the line you must get close to that 5 metre line. How many times were Leinster forced to maul from 10-15 metres? Toulouse KNEW Leinster was going to kick and maul and clearly spent considerable training time neutralizing thuis threat. The maul was starting too far out, Toulouse were able to stop the heart of the drive. You must change tack and start kicking for goals. That said it always felt like Toulouse were the potent team on the day with Leinster under pressure and chasing. Even with their backline completely disrupted, Toulouse found a way. 9 Wins in their last 9 finals. Leinster will be there next year. But so will Toulouse/Northhampton etc. A great era of club rugby.

17 Go to comments
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