Rob Baxter isn’t buying into the chatter that Exeter will be relinquishing their Heineken Champions Cup title into the hands of the French after the Top 14 provided five of the eight qualifiers for this weekend’s quarter-finals after last weekend’s unprecedented round of 16 straight knockout matches.
Quarter-final teams in previous seasons would have had to play six pool matches to reach the knockout stages, but the pandemic forced tournament organisers EPCR in a format revamp which resulted in the use of a round of 16 to restart the Champions Cup after the pool stages were decimated by cancellations.
The rejig led to French clubs winning five of last weekend games, giving them the upper hand in terms of the country by country representation in a last-eight line-up completed by two teams from England and one from Ireland.
A club from France has not lifted the trophy since Toulon secured their title hat-trick in 2015, but Baxter isn’t swayed by the suggestion that last weekend’s results marked a sea-change for the tournament.
Instead, Baxter – whose Exeter team knocked out Lyon at Sandy Park – argued that a couple of scores falling differently in the round of 16 matches in Coventry and Limerick would have seen Clermont and Toulouse beaten and the Champions Cup last-eight line-up looking far more evenly balanced.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 7, 2021
Speaking ahead of a weekend that will see Exeter host Leinster and La Rochelle take on Sale outside of a pair of all-French quarter-finals, Champions Cup-winning coach Baxter said: “You only have to watch the games. Wasps were within not giving away one penalty in the opposition 22 to beat Clermont and that is Clermont gone and Wasps through and what it is? Four-three.
“Munster was pretty much an even game until very, very late against a very good Toulouse side and then what would it become? It would become three English, two Irish, three French. On the basis of two scores across two games it would look so different in the quarter-finals.
“If you say that that’s how close the margins are, is it that they [the French] have got something hugely better or is it just a season where they were two games where they produced just enough to get them over the line?
“That is why some of these discussions, although valid, in one or two slightly different circumstances they can look so different. Sitting here now with five French clubs through the picture says to us they have got something really right this year but if you went back to the weekend, did Clermont outclass Wasps? No. Did Toulouse completely blow away Munster? No. Could either of those games have gone the other way? Potentially, yes, particularly the Wasps game.
“You could very easily have had a relatively even split in these quarter-finals. I know that myself, I know how hard it is for us [Exeter] to get to quarter-finals and also how many times we have lost a game by one score that would have got us out of the pool. That is how close some of the margins are and the margins didn’t feel that wide to me last weekend.
“I know there was a couple of bigger results but they almost came out of the blue a bit. Scarlets crumbling like they did, Edinburgh losing like they did. It’s a little more complex than saying the French have just got it right this year. It doesn’t feel like the gap has grown that big that quickly.
“When you get to the last-eight of Europe, how many Premiership clubs should be there? We have got two, we have got a quarter of the clubs. It’s not a bad showing in a bad year. It doesn’t feel that strange to me.”
10-YEAR QUARTER-FINAL LIST BY COUNTRY
2020/21: France 5, England 2, Ireland 1
2019/20: France 3, England 3, Ireland 2
2018/19: France 2, England 1, Ireland 3, Scotland 2
2017/18: France 4, England 1, Ireland 2, Wales 1
2016/17: France 3, England 2, Ireland 2, Scotland 1
2015/16: France 3, England 5
2014/15: France 3, England 4, Ireland 1
2013/14: France 3, England 2, Ireland 3
2012/13: France 3, England 3, Ireland 2
2011/12: France 2, England 1, Ireland 3, Scotland 1, Wales 1
Being told he wouldn't make it as a scrumhalf was one of a number of incidents that motivated @ExeterChiefs Jack Maunder's career, but they've opened up a world beyond rugby and have resulted in a best selling book
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 4, 2021
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