Early final stands out on quarterfinal weekend

rugby11 April 2024 09:33| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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© SuperSport

Toulouse might have something to say about this but it has been La Rochelle and Leinster who have dominated both the competition and the discourse in the last two seasons of the Investec Champions Cup.

So the fact the two finalists from the last two years get to clash in the quarterfinal round on Saturday takes away any debate about which is the biggest game of the weekend. Leinster against La Rochelle on Saturday evening (18.30) is the game to make sure you watch, although with no clashes in time slots, and another mouthwatering clash between Toulouse and Exeter Chiefs set for Sunday, why not watch all four of them?

Plus with the EPCR Challenge Cup quarterfinal kick-offs being conveniently timed to precede the start of the elite competition games, with three games set for 13.30 kick-offs across Saturday and Sunday, and the Gloucester clash with Ospreys kicking off the weekend’s fare on Friday night, and several of those games also being quite appetising, there’s the opportunity this week to watch three Challenge Cup games live and one on catch-up and still get in the four Champions Cup games on top of that.


Of course the local interest will be on the Vodacom Bulls, who front Northampton Saints at Franklin Gardens on Saturday night, and to a lesser extent, although that does not mean the game is less important in terms of what it means to the Hollywoodbets Sharks’ immediate future, the lunch time Saturday game in Durban where the hosts play Edinburgh.

There are lots of plots and sub-plots this weekend, one of them focusing on the three English teams. That’s more teams from the Gallagher Premiership than have been in the final eight for a while, and some are interpreting that as a sign of resurgence.

And understandably so, for some of those teams haven’t got this far for a sod of a long time - if the Saints beat the Bulls and make the semifinal it will be their first appearance at that stage of the competition in 13 years. Harlequins, who are away to Bordeaux Begles in the first Champions Cup game on Saturday afternoon, haven’t been this far for 11 seasons, which puts the achievement of the DHL Stormers and Sharks last year of making the quarters at their first attempt into better perspective.


Saracens were written up as the best placed English team to go all the way before last week’s round of 16, but clearly not enough cognisance was taken of what had happened in the pool game between the teams in December, where Bordeaux Begles won 55-14. The difference wasn’t quite as marked this time, Bordeaux won 45-12, but only marginally so. Bordeaux were every bit as dominant as Owen Farrell’s career as a Saracens player in the European competition came to a bleak end. The former England captain will be joining his Springbok adversary Siya Kolisi at Racing 92 next season.

Bordeaux, who lost to the Bulls at Loftus in their only reverse in the competition, look serious contenders to go all the way, and are probably the next best team outside of Leinster, La Rochelle and Toulouse. Which cues another sub-plot or set of questions for this round - the potential for French domination and all French final.

Those will be significantly increased if La Rochelle get past Leinster at the AVIVA Stadium in Dublin.


La Rochelle lost to Leinster in their opening Pool game in December, but it was desperately close and the French team were without some important players, including talisman and skipper Gregory Alldritt, at the time. Leinster dominated the early stages but La Rochelle came back at them and in the end, in a low scoring game, there was just one score in it, and Leinster were defending at the end.

La Rochelle coming back at Leinster, indeed coming back at any team, is a repeated narrative when these sides clash. La Rochelle were actually 17 points down against Leinster in last year’s final in Dublin, with the Irish side seemingly cruising to the easy win that would have given them a good measure of revenge for the previous year’s last gasp defeat in the Marseilles final. But no, back came La Rochelle, and they again won it at the death.

Not that La Rochelle reserve that never say die kind of comeback for just games against Leinster. They did it last week in the pulsating and tense but immensely watchable round of 16 tie against the Stormers in Cape Town. The hosts led 16-0 with 35 minutes to go and were unlucky not to come back and win it when they dominated the final 10 minutes but La Rochelle still showed their refusal to die by turning over that deficit.

And refusal to die has also marked their entire 2023/24 Champions Cup campaign. When they lost to a Manie Libbok conversion kick from the touchline in Cape Town in December, it was their second defeat in the Pool stages. Not many teams would have recovered from that, but they did, in emphatic fashion.

Leinster though must start as favourites on Saturday, if only because La Rochelle’s poor start to the season did make it more difficult for them in the sense that while Leinster were at home last weekend, La Rochelle were several thousands of kilometres away in Cape Town. The fact the French side had to get from the southern tip of Africa to Dublin via their home base and Paris must count against them. There again, it is the ability to overcome adversity that defines champions teams, and La Rochelle have proved that over and over again.

Leinster were excellent in the second half of their Vodacom United Rugby Championship annihilation of the Bulls but were less impressive against a spirited Leicester Tigers last week and parts of their first phase didn’t function like it should have. They will need to be on point against a La Rochelle pack that was efficient against the Stormers.


There were some unlucky URC teams in the Champions Cup round of 16, most notably the Stormers and the Glasgow Warriors, who could easily have won against La Rochelle and the Harlequins respectively. Munster also weren’t far away from beating Northampton away until the hosts brought on their bench, including former Stormers No 8 Juarno Augustus, in the second half.

But in the Challenge Cup there is a clear domination by URC teams at this point of the competition, with six URC teams effectively being joined by two outsiders in the form of Gloucester and Clermont Auvergne in the last eight.

Two of the quarterfinals see URC teams play each other - Sharks against Edinburgh and Benetton against Connacht - so there will be at least two URC sides in the last four. Ulster, who are so used to being in the business end of the Champions Cup but dropped to Challenge Cup when they failed to make the top 16 this time around, face a tough away fixture to Clermont in what could actually be the Challenge Cup game of the weekend.

But the Sharks/Edinburgh game could also be tight if Edinburgh can continue their good form picked up away against Bayonne last week and internalise their learnings from their recent 10 point loss to the Sharks in the URC. Sean Everitt is sure to field all his Scotland internationals this time so there could be quite a few individual duels between Boks and Scottish representatives to make the lunch time game in Durban extra interesting. The Sharks need to win if they want to play in the Champions Cup next year. It is their last opening as they are out of the race for a top eight spot in the URC.

Investec Cup quarterfinals (home teams first)

Bordeaux Begles v Harlequins (Saturday, 16.00)

Leinster v La Rochelle (Saturday, 18.30)

Northampton Saints v Vodacom Bulls (Saturday, 21.00)

Toulouse v Exeter Chiefs (Sunday, 16.00)

EPCR Challenge Cup quarterfinals

Gloucester v Ospreys (Friday, 21.00)

Hollywoodbets Sharks v Edinburgh (Saturday, 13.30)

Clermont Auvergne v Ulster (Saturday, 13.30)

Benetton v Connacht (Sunday, 13.30)