Champions Cup: Finalists from last two seasons aim their guns

rugby22 January 2024 07:41| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Jake White © Gallo Images

Vodacom Bulls director of rugby Jake White said it is as the sharp end of the Investec Champions Cup nears that the quality teams bring out their big guns, and we saw evidence of that in an absorbing final round of the Pool phase that was a great advert for the elite competition.

It was touted as a weekend that would be absorbing from start to finish, and it was, with several close games that determined the fates of challenging teams, and the scenario of who would play whom and where still in the balance right up until Bayonne made unexpectedly light work of the Exeter Chiefs late on Sunday.

White likened some of the teams participating in the elite European competition to international-level teams, making the point that while much was made of the French internationals in the Bordeaux backline, there were also several players in the forward pack who had played for other countries. It was why his Bulls team was on test match footing going into their final-round match.

The Bulls hit target, and so did the other South African team in the Champions Cup, the DHL Stormers. Both teams will be hosting their round of 16 matches in the second week of April, with, rather bizarrely, both sides coming up against teams they have played in this year’s competition already - the Stormers will host champions La Rochelle, who they scored an epic last-gasp win against in December, and the Bulls host Lyon.


But it was arguably a weekend where it was the two finalists from the past two years that made the biggest statements and gave an indication that whoever has aspirations of European glory is going to have to get past them.

La Rochelle, after hammering the Leicester Tigers in France the previous weekend, thus breaking their duck in wins in the competition this season, were as imperious in dispatching Sale Sharks at Sale on Sunday. The final winning margin was just 13 points, with Sale getting some momentum later in the game, but the reality was that the competitive part of that match was over by then.

La Rochelle, with Australian man-mountain Will Skelton and an equally massive group of physically imposing and gifted French colleagues, hit their target of pocketing the bonus point win that made sure of their third place. They did that some time from the end, after at one point leading 30-0, and once they’d done that Sale were able to end their Champions Cup campaign with a bit of a flourish as they got in some consolation scores.


The Tigers finished fifth in Pool 4 so their European season will continue, but in the secondary EPCR Challenge Cup, which they and three other fifth-placed teams will join by travelling in the round of 16 phase. La Rochelle though after starting so poorly with defeats to Leinster (home) and the Stormers (away) are positively flying now and will be hard to stop even though most of their play-off games will be on the road.

But the performance of the weekend came from the Vodacom United Rugby Championship frontrunners, Leinster. When White speaks of international teams, Leinster are the quintessential example and real deal, as they are essentially an Ireland team in different clothing. Indeed, when they tour South Africa later in the season, you could say their games will be warmups and acclimatisers for the eagerly awaited big test series between the Springboks and Ireland in July.

Leinster have yet to send a full-strength team to South Africa in the URC, but this year the URC log is being much more closely fought, so the Stormers and Emirates Lions, who will host them on South African soil, can expect to play a quasi-Ireland international team, and ditto the Bulls when they go to Dublin.

There’s a lot of tradition and history to the Leinster v Leicester rivalry, and there have been some great clashes between the two previous Champions Cup winners in the past. And at a heaving and packed Welford Road, it looked like Leinster might be upset by a Tigers team that took a handy 10-0 lead due to some uncharacteristic defensive errors from Leinster.


If there is one thing Leinster are though that many other teams are not, it is unflappable, and they quickly settled and then stormed back into the game before taking complete control. The Irish team have been nearly men in the Champions Cup in the last two seasons, with both of their appearances in finals being marred by La Rochelle coming back at them after trailing.

Maybe it’s taking the early lead that Leinster got wrong, for at Welford Road they showed that they are very good at coming back from a deficit. There are several games in the round of 16 that are a repeat of earlier games, and Leinster’s home game is one of them - they will be hosting the same team they beat away this past weekend. And will start as overwhelming favourites to advance to the quarterfinal stage.

Five-time winners Toulouse were the other team considered to be in a quartet of top challengers, with Bordeaux’s form edging them into contention along with Leinster, La Rochelle and Antoine Dupont’s men, but they struggled a bit to overcome the in-form Bath team coached by former Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan.

Toulouse arguably showed their championship qualities though in winning it late, scoring two tries to overcome a 19-all stalemate deep into the final quarter, and they should have the measure of Racing 92 in their round of 16 game.


Talking of Bath, the machinations of the logs and the seeding positions that determine who plays where in the first playoff round added to the drama and tension of a final round of group play that was a massive advertisement for what the Champions Cup offers. When the final game between Bayonne and Exeter Chiefs kicked off, with Chiefs expected to win, it looked like Bath were heading for Cape Town for their playoff game.

But that all swung around when Bayonne arrived for once and outplayed their English opponents, thus putting the Chiefs on a collision path with Bath and sending La Rochelle to Cape Town instead.

The Stormers clinched home advantage with a tight win that was secured by Manie Libbok’s try nine minutes from time, but at one stage of a game where they were poor for much of it, it looked like they might not be going to the round of 16 at all. Not for nothing though was their group known as the Pool of Death, however, so winning three out of four and clinching home advantage was a massive achievement for them and an indicator of the improvement the South African challenge has shown this year.

The one downside for local rugby was the fact that only two teams made the elite competition, with the Hollywoodbets Sharks not finishing in the qualifying bracket last season. The Sharks might struggle to get into the Champions Cup through the URC log positions but their good win over the Dragons in Newport suggests they will make a good fist of their Challenge Cup quest, and a place in the Champions Cup is the prize for the winner.


Fellow URC team Ulster will be one of the teams that the Sharks will have to get past if they want to win the Challenge Cup, for the Irish province was comprehensively thrashed by Harlequins in their final pool game and dropped to fifth, behind Racing 92, in Pool 2.

URC champions Munster also lost a tight home game at Thomond Park to one of the form teams in this year’s competition, Northampton Saints, but had enough log points to advance to the next round as the fourth-placed team in their pool. They will play the Saints again now in the round of 16, with the venues just being reversed. It should be quite a game.

Glasgow Warriors, in strong contention in the URC this season, made sure of third place in Pool 3 with a comprehensive thumping of Toulon when an absorbing final round of group action started at the Scotstoun on Friday night. Franco Smith’s Glasgow will be travelling to The Stoop to play the in-form Harlequins when the playoffs start in April.

Round 4 Investec Challenge Cup results

Glasgow Warriors 29 Toulon 5

Connacht 27 Bristol Bears 10

Vodacom Bulls 46 Bordeaux Begles 40

Harlequins 47 Ulster 19

Racing 92 48 Cardiff 26

Leicester Tigers 10 Leinster 27

Munster 23 Northampton Saints 26

Stade Francais 20 DHL Stormers 24

Saracens 39 Lyon 24

Sale Sharks 24 La Rochelle 37

Toulouse 31 Bath 19

Bayonne 40 Exeter Chiefs 17

EPCR Challenge Cup results

Scarlets 19 Edinburgh 31

Gloucester 35 Castres 5

Pau 28 Zebre 27

Black Lion 3 Clermont Auvergne 36

Oyonnax 28 Toyota Cheetahs 27

Benetton 27 Montpellier 19

Emirates Lions 28 Ospreys 38

Perpignan 23 Newcastle 32

Dragons 9 Hollywoodbets Sharks 29

Investec Champions Cup round of 16 fixtures (5/6/7 April - home teams first)

Toulouse v Racing 92

Leinster v Leicester Tigers

Northampton Saints v Munster

Bordeaux Begles v Saracens

Harlequins v Glasgow Warriors

Vodacom Bulls v Lyon

DHL Stormers v La Rochelle

Exeter Chiefs v Bath

EPCR Challenge Cup round of 16 fixtures (5/6/7 April - home teams first)

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Zebre Parma

Gloucester v Castres

Benetton v Emirates Lions

ASM Clermont Auvergne v Toyota Cheetahs

Montpellier v Ulster

Pau v Connacht

Ospreys v Sale Sharks

Edinburgh v Bayonne