Exeter Chiefs hosting Bath will be the domestic highlight of the Champions Cup last 16 in April, after the pool stage ended on Sunday with the four group winners consisting of Toulouse, Leinster, Northampton Saints and Union Bordeaux Begles.
Northampton hadn’t won a pool since the 2010-11 season, when they reached the final. Saints’ 26-23 victory in Munster on Saturday with 14 men for the entire second half featured Fin Smith’s 45-metre drop goal and all-round game management in the later stages in stormy Limerick, to enhance the young fly-half’s reputation as he joins the England training camp in Spain this week.
Exeter qualified despite being down to 12 men late in a 40-17 loss to Bayonne on Sunday. The often fraught head-contact process was highlighted as Chiefs’ newly-announced Wales captain Dafydd Jenkins dipped as far as is possible for a 2.01m forward to tackle the impish scrum-half Kleo Labarbe.
And while it might have stretched the letter of the law on mitigation, it felt right for Jenkins to receive only a yellow card from referee Nika Amashukeli. The Exeter centre Joe Hawkins was upright in another tackle, and saw red.
Willis sends England a message
For Toulouse, the No 1 ranked qualifiers with 20 points out of 20, the form of flanker Jack Willis is causing fresh ructions over England’s ban on picking overseas-based players.
Willis was non-committal about the policy when he first joined Toulouse, but privately he had formed the impression it was going to be changed, only to now find the RFU and Premiership holding the line.
His turnover ability and improving carrying threat shone in Toulouse’s 31-19 win over Bath on Sunday.
“England are missing out on having one of the best flankers, playing for the best European [club] team,” TV pundit Lawrence Dallaglio said.
“With Tom Curry injured, we don’t have anyone with Jack Willis’s skill set in their back row. Why can he not play for England?”
Harlequins embrace the chaos
Harlequins’ director of rugby Billy Millard said on Saturday afternoon he would await the Toulouse-Bath result with a glass of wine and a Thai takeaway, and the Aussie may have had to go back for seconds because it was well past 5pm on Sunday before Thomas Ramos’s try took away Bath’s losing bonus point and shunted them into third place below Quins in Pool Two.
One of Bath’s three tries was a crash-ball finish by Ollie Lawrence in the inside-centre channel – possibly his imminent role for England – off a line-out.
Back at Quins, backs coach assistant Nick Evans was pithy when asked by commentator Ally Eykyn about the “chaos” during the 47-19 win over Ulster.
“It may look like chaos to you but this is what we train,” Evans said.
The kings of pool play are still Leinster who have lost one group match in seven seasons (28-27 away to Toulouse in October 2018).
Caelan Doris, the No 8 who has started 28 of the last 29 Ireland Tests, epitomised their focus with a bonus-point try in the fifth minute of added time at Leicester.
Tough away days
Bath are one of eight teams who would have been out now if the Champions Cup had progressed straight to quarter-finals.
Instead there will be three pool rematches, including Leinster vs Leicester and Northampton vs Munster, while Saracens will be less than thrilled at another trip to last week’s tormentors Bordeaux.
Other dangerous floaters hitting the road – or the airport tarmac – include La Rochelle, the champions of the last two seasons who now go to Stormers after winning 37-24 at Sale Sharks on Sunday, with France’s new captain Gregory Alldritt outstanding.
Sale, the Premiership runners-up last season, will join Connacht, Ulster and Bayonne in dropping into April’s round of 16 in the Challenge Cup, in which Gloucester, Edinburgh and Ospreys also fly the British flag.
For the eliminated Bristol, Cardiff, Dragons, Scarlets and Newcastle, there will be no competitive fixtures on the remaining European weekends this season.
A much-needed break
While the French clubs play on in their domestic league during the Six Nations, the Premiership takes a break after this weekend, until the last week of March.
One happy beneficiary will be Scotland’s Finn Russell, who on Sunday was named as his country’s co-captain with Rory Darge.
Fly-half Russell is due to train with Scotland early this week, then return to his club Bath for the Premiership meeting with Bristol on Saturday, but he won’t have to keep flitting back and forth during the Six Nations.
The 31-year-old will feature prominently in the forthcoming Netflix Six Nations documentary.
Marcus Smith, Ellis Genge, Andrew Porter and Sebastian Negri are others sliding back the veil, which Russell hopes will make social media abuse of players less likely.
Mixed fortunes for Farrell
Owen Farrell has been the centre of that debate of late, and Nigel Wray, the long-time owner of Saracens who still retains a minority stake, shares the shock at what Farrell and his family are said to have put up with on social media.
The Premiership break could be the time for the fly-half’s discussions with Racing 92 to be publicly settled. Saracens piled on 27 points without reply in the final 33 minutes of Saturday’s 39-24 win over Lyon, with elements of Farrell’s goal-kicking and passing as excellent as ever.
But he also endured a remarkable four charge-downs, including a very rare one as Lyon’s lively Georgia wing Davit Niniashvili blocked his attempted penalty kick to touch.
“Anyone can be charged down,” Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall said.
“You have got to respond in the right way. Owen didn’t fall apart, he grew in that moment when the team needed him most, he stepped up and he led us to a pretty comfortable victory by the end. You’ve got to take your hat off to him.”