It’s almost time to grab the passports again for a return to European Professional Club Rugby action. After an extended break for the RBS 6 Nations and domestic rugby, the Champions Cup will take centre stage with a star-studded last eight giving us a line-up to whet the appetite.
There is a particularly Anglo-French feel to the quarter finals this time around, with seven of the eight teams remaining coming from Aviva Premiership Rugby and Top 14. The only team breaking the stranglehold is Leinster Rugby. Four of England’s finest face away trips, with Bath, Northampton Saints, Saracens and Wasps all on the road. ASM Clermont Auvergne, Racing Metro 92 and RC Toulon are the French representatives rounding out the final eight.
Journey to this point
Leinster earned a home quarter-final by topping Pool 6, beating Wasps to top spot courtesy of a last day draw between the two. Wasps qualified by virtue of being one of the best second placed finishers in the pool stage. The Irish side’s reward for topping the pool is a home tie against Bath, who finished atop Pool 4, overcoming the challenge of Toulouse and Glasgow Warriors.
The aforementioned Wasps pay the price for finishing second and face a trip to Toulon. The French club won five out of six matches in Pool 3, with only an away defeat to Leicester Tigers blotting their copybook.
English champions Northampton Saints are also headed to France, taking on Clermont Auvergne. Saints finished second to Racing Metro in Pool 5, losing to them home and away. Clermont beat Saracens to top spot in their pool to get themselves a home quarter-final tie. Meanwhile, Metro and Sarries complete the last eight fixtures.
So who are the favourites to take the trophy? It would seem that those with home advantage have the best shot. However as we enter knockout rugby, anything can happen. Leinster are currently 4th in the Guinness Pro 12 table, while the English contingent are headed by Northampton, sitting top of Aviva Premiership Rugby some 12 points ahead of Saracens. Wasps and Bath are fourth and fifth respectively.
Down in France, Top 14 is currently led by Clermont, with Toulon second and Racing Metro fourth. Each of the last eight are in and around the top of their respective leagues, so it could come down to who is at the top of their game on the day.
It’s great to have European rugby back. The quarter-finals might have a distinctly English and French feel to it, but you wouldn’t rule out Leinster from breaking the duopoly. Whoever triumphs in May, a feast of high quality rugby is guaranteed.
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