Champions Cup talking points: ‘Painfully’ predictable home advantage, ‘different level’ Toulouse and Harlequins’ miracle

Dylan Coetzee
Split with Antoine Dupont (Toulouse), Leinster v La Rochelle and Bulls boss Jake White.

Split with Antoine Dupont (Toulouse), Leinster v La Rochelle and Bulls boss Jake White.

The Investec Champions Cup rolls into the quarter-finals this weekend with only eight teams remaining in the quest to become European champions in London later this year.

Before the action gets underway, Planet Rugby has put together some intriguing storylines for you to keep an eye on as the drama unfolds this weekend.

Travel troubles

The inclusion of South African teams was always going to have interesting implications on travel times and distances with Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle one of the teams to truly feel the brunt of this.

La Rochelle flew from France to Cape Town for their round of 16 clash against the Stormers, and after the French team pulled out a nail-biting win they hopped on a plane to Dublin completing a total of over 21,000 kilometres according to L’Equipe. Obviously this is challenging for the team to navigate but no doubt O’Gara will have no excuses as they face their fierce rivals but more on that below.

The Bulls have travelled similar distances recently, having played Leinster in Dublin before hosting Lyon last weekend and now they go north again to Northampton Saints for the quarter-finals.

Director of rugby Jake White was rather outspoken about the lack of travel planning from SA Rugby and insisted it is difficult for South African sides to be competitive in the Champions Cup due to the travel demands.

The governing body has since responded and now the Bulls will have to stand up to the Premiership leaders in a clash where travel concerns or excuses will matter for nothing.

Jake White still livid over Bulls’ travel schedule ahead of key Champions Cup clash

Home team dominance to continue?

The round of 16 showcased the power of home advantage with seven of the eight games being won by the hosts.

The single loss for a home side came from the Stormers, who very nearly won the game with the final kick of the match. Elsewhere, home advantage dragged the likes of Harlequins, Exeter Chiefs and Northampton over the line in tight encounters.

This weekend’s fixtures could well follow suit, with most of the hosts for the quarter-finals looking like the favourites for the encounters, with the partial exception of Leinster, who face their foes La Rochelle.

Still, the power of hosting is essential to a winning team’s run into the title and that will likely showcase itself again this weekend.

Another instalment in a great modern rivalry

The last two Champions Cup finals have been between Leinster and La Rochelle, with O’Gara’s men winning by one point last season and just three points the season before, showcasing how tightly contested the games have been.

Both those finals have been won with clutch moments when it counted most and one would expect it to be similar again this weekend when La Rochelle travel to Dublin as they did for the final last season.

They have met this season in the group stage, with Leinster claiming a 9-16 win away from home in terribly wet conditions. Since then, the form of the sides have been contrasting as La Rochelle have had some mixed results in the Top14 but produced when it counted in Cape Town. While Leinster have been commanding in the United Rugby Championship.

Both teams are absolutely littered with quality, and they know each other very well, which all adds to what is certain to be one of the games of the season in Dublin.

Grab the popcorn and buckle up because it does not get much better than this on the club stage.

Brian O’Driscoll claims Leinster are ‘not quite as sharp’ under Jacques Nienaber

Toulouse engine warming up

With all the attention on the big match-up in Dublin, there is an under-the-radar feeling around Toulouse at the moment who are starting to look really sharp at the moment.

The return of integral half-back duo Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack immediately makes the high-powered side a different level of concern for the other sides. In the quarter-finals, Toulouse played a solid game of rugby, winning 31-7 without really getting into top gear as Ntamack, in particular, was getting up to speed after his long injury lay-off.

Toulouse are European royalty and will be eager to add to their record five Champions Cup titles. It is no secret how much the French giants value the competition and how it determines their success.

Keep an eye out for the decorated team who have Exeter Chiefs in their crosshairs.

Miracle required for Harlequins

Everything good from Quins’ last outing against Glasgow Warriors ran through the exuberant Marcus Smith, who, like any good magician, pulled a rabbit out of the hat whenever it was required. The London side is going to need that and some as they face up to a boisterous Bordeaux Begles side in red-hot form.

The likes of Damian Penaud, Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Nicolas Depoortere and Yoram Moefana all cutting loose in the same backline controlled by their conductor Mateo Garcia is a frightening prospect. Add in their pack led by the renowned ‘Big Ben’ Tameifuna, amongst other Test stars, and it begins to look even more difficult for Quins.

Make no mistake, Harlequins are a quality outfit loaded with stars on their own but suffered from a lack of consistency this season. Throw in the trip to Bordeaux’s backyard and it puts even more pressure on Quins’ decision-makers to find the right answers to the encyclopaedia of questions coming their way at Stade Chaban-Delmas.

Still, a miracle in every sense of the word is required to contain the French side.

Can Northampton Saints keep their silverware double dreams alive?

Northampton players are oozing class this season having found rhythm and belief within the ranks as they lead Premiership standings and have looked good under pressure as they did in both their clashes against Munster.

Saints boss Phil Dowson believes the double is feasible after they showed impressive mettle with the game locked up at 14 all last weekend before the clash was won by some George Hendy heroics.

Title-winning seasons are often filled with big game moments that fall favourably and Hendy’s brace at Franklin’s Gardens may have been just that.

It is hard not to get carried away with the energy coming out of the side who look desperate to come out of their wave of strong form with a medal for the mantlepiece.

Painfully predictable or stunningly shocking?

As mentioned above, the home sides are favourites to go through in all games except the clash of titans between Leinster and La Rochelle. This means the quarter-finals could go one of two ways and you guessed it, either painfully predictable or stunningly shocking.

Odds are that most of the home sides will advance, and we will be left barking about the format again next week, discussing how the matchups in the playoffs were all wrong and lopsided from the start.

Or, and it is a big or, there could be a round of drama all loaded into four games where the pressures of knockout rugby force tight scores and big moments.

What is left now is to watch the top clubs in the world battle for European glory.

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