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Heineken Champions Cup Recap: Playoffs Decided At The Final Whistle

Heineken Champions Cup Recap: Playoffs Decided At The Final Whistle

FloRugby's Heineken Champions Cup Round Four recap. Heavyweights slug it out, seedings decided at the final whistle and a very clever Springbok.

Jan 22, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Heineken Champions Cup Recap: Playoffs Decided At The Final Whistle

As the curtain comes down on the pool stages of the 2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup. Rugby fans were once again reminded of the razor-thin margins in club rugby’s toughest competition. 

Coming into the final round of this season’s competition just three teams were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. 

Now bidding adieu to eight teams, the tournament now kicks into overdrive as it becomes winner-takes-all from here on out. 

Last Sixteen Decided At The Final Whistle 

Proving once again why the Heineken Champions Cup is so exhilarating, it took until the final whistle in the final round to decide just how the round of sixteen would present. 

As Edinburgh kicked the ball into the night sky to close out a victory over English powerhouse Saracens. Head coach Mike Blair was left cursing his player’s lack of awareness around the playoff implications. 

Having roundly dominated Saracens for much of the contest Edinburgh conceded a late try as Sarries backrow Ben Earls scampered down the left-hand touchline. 

Earl’s try would prove to be pivotal as it ensured the Londoners would finish in 4th position in Pool A locking up a home playoff spot. 

Had Blair’s side not conceded the try or had the wherewithal to push for a further score it could’ve been them who avoided travelling in the next round. 

Alas, it was not to be for the Scottish side who join seven other sides in hitting the road for the next round as they head south to Welford Road to take on the Leicester Tigers.

Whilst there can be no doubting the benefits of home-field advantage, this list of fixtures certainly has the potential for a number of upsets. 

Starting with the first two fixtures which see two ascending sides in the Ospreys and Munster heading on the road. Awaiting them are the dominant forces of Saracens and the Cell C Sharks who each lost their final round of pool action.   

Undoubtedly both home sides will enter the fixture as favourites but given the quality and continuous improvement of their visitors, neither fixture is a given.

Elsewhere despite having experienced a major midseason lull, Dan McFarland’s Ulster travels to Dublin as heavy underdogs against rivals Leinster.

Despite this, Ulster has pushed Leinster to the brink on a number of occasions over the past few seasons. Entering under the radar could just suit the Ulstermen as they attempt to pull off what would be one of the biggest upsets in recent tournament history. 

Finally, in Cape Town, it will be a case of better the devil you know than the one you don’t as the DHL Stormers welcome Harlequins. 

Both sides play a nearly identical style of up-tempo, exciting, all-out-attack game which should lead to a try fest unlike any other. Having already dealt with a powerful South African side this season, Quins will be all too familiar with what is needed to spring the upset. 

Thus, the stage is set, now all that is left to do is wait and see where the cards will fall. One thing is for certain, rugby fans are in for some brutally brilliant rugby in the coming months. 

Game Of The Week 

In a weekend of contrasting performances, three clashes stick out as potential games of the week. 

Starting with Friday’s street fight between the Ospreys and Leicester Tigers. 

In a game with significant implications in terms of playoff seeding, neither side gave an inch the contest ebbed and flowed. As the final whistle approached, the result hung in the balance. Scoring a late try, it would be the Ospreys who closed out a 27 – 26 victory to lock up a 5th place seeding going into the knock-out round. 

For the Tigers, the loss will sting and could yet come back to haunt them should they progress to the round of sixteen. A bonus point victory over the Ospreys would have seen them finish second in their pool and with it locked in a home quarterfinal instead they will now be on the road.   

Saturday’s stand-out clash was a brutally physical arm wrestle between Ulster Rugby and the Sale Sharks. 

Dan McFarland’s Ulster side came into the clash on the back of a gut-wrenching overtime loss away to the Champions La Rochelle in round three. Another loss would’ve meant elimination for the side from Belfast who had already lost 39 – 0 in round one to Sale.

In what was a back-and-forth battle, Ulster closed out a morale-boosting 22 -11 win to sneak their way into the last sixteen. 

Whilst the two clashes above were intriguing contests, a Champions Cup classic was played out on Sunday between two of European Rugby’s biggest names. 

Two-time champions Munster travelled to France to tackle five-time champions Toulouse at the Stade Ernest-Wallon. 

Having narrowly defeated Munster in round one at Thomond Park, Toulouse entered the fixture looking to make a statement. Across the first twenty minutes of action, it looked as though a blow-out would be on the cards as the Antoine Dupont led side ripped into their visitors with venom. 

Despite all of their dominance in the opening quarter, Toulouse simply couldn’t land the killer blow as Munster absorbed everything their hosts threw their way. 

In what was a true display of how far Munster has come since the beginning of the season under new head coach Graham Rowntree, they took the lead 16 – 14 with little over twenty minutes to play. 

Unfortunately for the Irish side, they will be left lamenting two missed conversions from flyhalf Joey Carbery. Having been left out of Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad for the upcoming Six Nations, Munster’s number ten was looking to make a statement. 

Across his fifty minutes of involvement, Carbery played some brilliant attacking rugby but was severely let down by his performance from the kicking tee. Usually rock solid in that department, this evening’s performance will likely sit with him following what has been a tough week. 

For Toulouse, head coach Ugo Mola was visibly frustrated as the full-time whistle sounded. Ahead of kick-off, his side would’ve known that a bonus point victory would’ve been necessary to clinch the top spot in the pool. 

Instead, La Rochelle will top the group meaning that any semi-final appearance for Mola’s team will now be on the road barring either La Rochelle or Leinster losing.

England Coaches Face Flyhalf Conundrum  

Newly appointed England head coach Steve Borthwick has yet to see his team kick a ball in the anger. Yet despite this, England now face a real selection quandary that will go a long way to deciding their 2023 success. 

Having named both Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith as his two leading flyhalf options for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations. Borthwick and attack coach Nick Evans have two red hot flyhalves to choose from. 

Both players are currently in the form of their life albeit even if Farrell is currently suspended for a dangerous tackle. 

Thus, the dilemma faced by Borthwick’s predecessor Eddie Jones as to whether you play both or choose one of the two remains England’s biggest question this season.

Having trialled the dual play making axis with Smith at flyhalf and Farrell at centre on multiple occasions, it has been widely regarded that combination has yielded mix results at best. 

Clearly Farrell has operated best as a flyhalf and chief playmaker. Whilst Smith has at times looked stymied and unassured playing next to the long-time England captain. 

Working in Smith’s favour is the addition as Evans as the attack coach. Having worked closely with the mercurial playmaker for a long time at Harlequins. 

Evans knows how to get the best out of Smith. Yet just how much this club ‘nepotism’ counts when choosing between Smith and the 101 Test Cap Farrell remains to be seen. 

In a world full of difficult decisions, it is tough to feel too sorry for Borthwick who has two World Class playmaking options from which to choose. Yet even still it is tough to envy his position as the wrong decision could have grave consequences for England’s 2023 Six Nations and World Cup hopes.

Springbok Try Controversy  

Springbok legend Eben Etzebeth is a marvel in the modern game, the 6’8” 270lb second row is not only one of the greatest physical specimens in the game but also possesses one of the highest rugby intellects. 

At 31-yearsold, the Sharks star has played for the Springboks on 110 occasions since making his debut in 2012. Winning a World Cup, Lions Series and a Rugby Championship to produce a CV the envy of players the world over. 

Drawing on all of this experience, Etzebeth once again proved his rugby IQ as his Cell C Sharks fell to a 39 – 29 away loss to Harlequins. 

In a rather dire position two scores down with half-time beckoning, Etzebeth dragged his side right back into the contest. 

Essentially committing daylight robbery, Etzebeth simply plucked the ball from the back of Quins ruck in one of most bizarre scores in this year’s competition.

As the experienced Danny Care looked to clear the ball on the occasion of his 350th game for Quins, Etzebeth barged through before going 40 meters to score. 

As players, fans and coaches were left scratching their heads, referee Nika Amashukeli allowed play to go on. 

Explaining just why the incident was legal, Etzebeth went on to say, “There was one previously in the game where I was too excited and almost slipped when I picked the ball up,” Etzebeth said. “The last one, I just saw one of the guys counter rucking, and Joe Marler just lost his bind for a bit and had a long arm bind, and I went for it.” 

“Luckily, Nika saw it, and he didn’t penalise me because that’s the rules; you must be bound, or the ball is out.” 

“We try to put pressure on the other teams’ breakdown when they try and exit from their own half; I think it was just normal. Like I said, it was just a good counter ruck, and the bind was lost, and luckily it went my way this time,” he said. 

Whilst Etzebeth was very certain in the legality of the play, Quins defence coach Jerry Flannery disagreed as he wrote on twitter.

"Counter ruck to disrupt the caterpillar ruck so the ball becomes exposed, teams must execute the kick quicker, less time to organise kick chase line means more broken-field attack, just let us know how it’s going to be officiated beforehand please.”

Written by Philip Bendon