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The All Blacks simply didn't adjust to the changes that were happening on the field.

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'Farcical': Eliminated Harlequins hit out at Champions Cup format

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Harlequins senior coach Tabai Matson has branded the new home-and-away round-of-16 format in the Heineken Champions Cup as farcical three days after the reigning Gallagher Premiership champions were dramatically knocked out of Europe on an aggregate difference of one point. Matson’s side were one of three higher-ranked teams eliminated by sides with lower seeds, Bristol and Ulster also losing out to Sale and Toulouse respectively.  


The former All Blacks and Fijian international had no issue that Montpellier squeezed out Harlequins 60-59 over the two legs, admitting the French were the better team overall. His issue was that the tournament structure adopted by EPCR effectively gave a struggling team like Montpellier a second chance to succeed in Europe, something now denied to the English champions in their time of need. 

Harlequins won all four of their pool matches over the winter, defeating Castres and Cardiff twice to finish with 19 points in second place in Pool B compared to Montpellier, who finished in seventh place in Pool A where they were hammered 42-6 at Exeter and 89-7 at Leinster but still progressed as they were awarded a 28-0 committee room win over the Irish province for a controversially-enforced cancellation while they also beat the Chiefs at home to progress.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

That contrasting pool stage track record annoyed Matson as he felt Harlequins weren’t adequately rewarded for their form in the group section as Montpellier were also given a home game in the round-of-16 section. “It’s pretty tough,” he explained at his weekly media session on Tuesday when asked to revisit last Saturday’s anguished European exit at the hands of the French at The Stoop. 

“On reflection, we finished second in our pool and they finished seventh in their pool and they basically get a free crack. I am not sure in the final 16 there was any advantage for us to finish (as high as we did). Ultimately we won five games, they won two but it’s not sour grapes. They were better than us over the last two games, so they deserved to go through. I have got no qualms about that but it does make the first part of pool play farcical if they can get two cracks at it and you don’t really get an advantage from finishing on top of the table.”


Asked if he thought EPCR, the tournament organisers, were aware of this frustration regarding the format, the Harlequins leader added: “They know that. When you feed back that information now it’s quite a gripe. ‘Ah, the guys that got knocked out are griping about the format of the competition’. I think the format was a response to what has been happening around covid. I completely understand that. When you stand back and reflect, you know a team that comes first in the league plays the team that comes eighth and there is really no advantage other than that you get to play at home in the second leg. That’s not really an advantage.”


If so, does Matson expect the round-of-16 format to the altered for next season? “The response we have got from the weekend is that it’s really exciting when you are watching one game but also the aggregate score, but maybe if you do it in a semi-final or final that would be really interesting. At this point here maybe you would consider the teams that have finished pool play well could actually get an advantage. I’m sure I’m not the only person that would have fed that information back.”

The winter form of Harlequins in Europe suggested they would go deep in the tournament and that anticipation has added to their sense of frustration that this season was a clear missed opportunity. “That’s why there was a real hollow feeling for the players and the whole group. We definitely missed an opportunity. 

“It’s on us. It’s not the format of the competition. When you play 160 minutes of rugby and you lose by one point you have definitely missed an opportunity. We were 34-0 down in the first leg. Against the best teams in Europe, you are asking to lose on aggregate. We fought ferociously at home but you can’t give any team at that level a 34-point advantage and then hope to beat them in the next 120 minutes.”


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