As the sporting world creeps ever more towards normality, this weekend marked the return of European rugby, following a hiatus of eight months due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.
While domestic competition continues in England and France, last week’s conclusion of the Guinness PRO14 season hinted towards the end of 2019/20, with plenty at stake in the first knockout rounds of both the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.
Without either Premiership or Top 14 rugby on show, all eyes were on the battles for semi-final spots in each of the European competitions, with a repeat of last season’s Champions Cup final arguably the pick of the fixtures.
Across the continent there were myriad thrills and spills, with plenty at stake in each of the seven clashes that went ahead, either extending a team’s shot at glory or seeing their dreams dashed for at least another year.
LEINSTER FINALLY LOSE
There was plenty riding on Saturday’s hotly-anticipated fixture between newly-crowned PRO14 champions Leinster and 2018/19 Champions Cup winners Saracens in Dublin, for largely different reasons.
The Irishmen were yet to lose a game in 2019/20 in all competitions going into the contest, and were vying to add European glory to their third domestic triumph in a row, while exacting revenge on a side who pipped them at the final hurdle last season in the process.
For the Men in Black, European success was all they had left to play for after being consigned to relegation from the Premiership due to a breach of the salary cap, and they faced the task of overcoming Leinster without suspended England skipper Owen Farrell.
But the Londoners prevailed in dramatic fashion, Alex Goode – Farrell’s replacement at No.10 – going over to help Saracens to a 22-3 half-time lead at the Aviva Stadium.
Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour – both members of Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam-winning squad – dotted down in the second 40 to reduce the deficit to five points with 18 minutes left.
But Goode – who made one substitute appearance as England claimed the 2016 Grand Slam – scored a last-minute penalty to secure a famous 25-17 win and extend Sarries’ hopes of lifting the Champions Cup trophy for a fourth time in five seasons.
The Englishmen will battle French giants Racing 92 for a spot in the competition showpiece, after they saw off fellow countrymen Clermont Auvergne 36-27 at Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Louis Dupichot’s try in the third minute put the visitors ahead, and Francois Trinh-Duc went over to help Racing to a 24-8 half-time lead after Etienne Falgoux had got Clermont off the mark.
France internationals Wesley Fofana and Damian Penaud scored either side of teammate Kotaro Matsushima as Clermont pushed for progression, but 20 points from away scrum-half Teddy Iribaren ultimately told, helping Racing to a spot in the last four of Europe’s premier competition for the first time since they were beaten by Leinster in the final two years ago.
Elsewhere, Toulouse piled the misery on Dan McFarland’s Ulster, with the beaten PRO14 finalists at the wrong end of a 36-8 scoreline at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.
South African star Cheslin Kolbe crossed for two of the hosts’ five tries, while Antoine Dupont and Thomas Ramos – both involved for France in this year’s Championship – and Pita Ahki all got their names on the scoresheet.
Ireland scrum-half John Cooney was the sole contributor to Ulster’s tally, as the Belfast-based side’s season ended with their fourth defeat in five games.
In Sunday’s late game, England’s Jack Nowell was on target as Exeter Chiefs eased past compatriots Northampton Saints to qualify for the Champions Cup semi-finals for the first time in seven attempts.
Jack Maunder, Jacques Vermeulen (2) and Jonny Hill also went over for the hosts – who will face Toulouse next – while Teimana Harrison and Fraser Dingwall scored tries for the Saints.
BEARS BULLDOZE INTO CHALLENGE CUP LAST FOUR
The weekend’s action got off to a blistering start at Ashton Gate, with Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears recovering from a shaky start to overhaul Dean Ryan’s Dragons and book a Challenge Cup semi-final spot.
Ashton Hewitt put Dragons in front early on and scrum-half Rhodri Williams – who made one Championship appearance for Wales in 2014 – notched the first try of the second half, but Premiership high-fliers Bristol ultimately proved too strong.
Ben Earl showed flashes of the form that earned him three Championship caps for England earlier this year with two tries, while there were also scores for Nathan Hughes, Semi Radradra, Chris Vui, Max Malins and Dan Thomas, as the hosts ran out 56-17 winners.
Bordeaux-Begles represent the next obstacle to Bristol’s quest for maiden European success, after the Frenchmen knocked out PRO14 semi-finalists Edinburgh 23-14 on home soil.
The visitors were left with a mountain to climb after Santiago Cordero and Jean-Baptiste Dubie tries gave Bordeaux a 14-0 lead after just eight minutes, and despite Damien Hoyland’s score, Richard Cockerill’s men never recovered.
Three-time Champions Cup winners Toulon demonstrated their prowess in European competition with a narrow, 11-6 win over Scarlets, with Italian great Sergio Parisse providing the decisive try.
Leigh Halfpenny – himself a multiple Guinness Six Nations champion – kicked two penalties to give the visitors a slender half-time advantage, but six points from Louis Carbonel and a score from 37-year-old Parisse – a veteran of 69 Championship appearances – earned the Frenchmen victory.
Toulon will face ten-time English champions Leicester Tigers in the semi-finals, after opponents Castres forfeited their quarter-final tie due to three members of their squad testing positive for coronavirus.