The knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup take place over two legs and at the conclusion, eight clubs will remain who’ll compete in the quarter finals held between Friday May 6th and Sunday the 8th of May.
From a punters’ point of view, there’s plenty to look forward to as the top players from English, Irish and French clubs fight it out, ultimately, for the right to contest the final in Marseille at the end of May.
The following five English sides – Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers – have qualified for the last 16 as have the four Irish provinces – Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster.
Meanwhile, seven French teams are through – Stade Francais (Paris), Racing 92 (Paris), Toulouse, Bordeaux Begles, La Rochelle, Montpellier and Clermont Auvergne.
As you can see from the next round of games, played home and away, those keen to back particular teams have much to excite them.
The following games will be played on Friday April 8th, Saturday April 9th, or Sunday April 10th.
Stade Francais v Racing 92
Toulouse v Ulster
Bordeaux Begles v La Rochelle
Connacht v Leinster
Sale v Bristol
Exeter v Munster
Montpellier v Harlequins
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers
The second leg will take place on Friday April 15th, Saturday April 16th and Sunday April 17th.
You will notice that, sadly, not one of the Welsh regions..Cardiff, Ospreys, Scarlets..has qualified for the last 16, although Cardiff will compete now in the European Challenge Cup.
Scotland, too, will be absent because neither Glasgow Warriors nor Edinburgh made the cut. However, the latter will now play in the Challenge Cup along with Benetton (Italy), Brive, Gloucester, London Irish, Lyon, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, Saracens, USAP (Perpignan), Worcester Warriors, Zebre (Italy), Glasgow Warriors, Northampton Saints, Bath, Wasps and Castres Olympique.
Excellent games to look forward to in April
The Irish teams, especially Ulster, Leinster and Munster, are so powerful that many experts will make one of them favourites to reach the final and go on to win.
Connacht are competitive too, but the brutal way in which Bath were slaughtered by Leinster 64-7 at the weekend illustrates the ruthless weapons the Dublin team possess to attack opponents, and punters should be aware that Leinster have won the Heineken Cup four times , and going into the last 16 they are the top try scorers with 30.
Their games against rivals Connacht should be spectacular as will Ulster’s matches against current champions Toulouse.
The Belfast based team keep the ball alive, have dangerous backs and in full back Michael Lowry you can see why Ireland coach Andy Farrell picked him for his Six Nations squad.
Exeter’s two legs in which they clash with Munster will be entertaining too. Champions in 2020, Exeter have still to reach the form this season they showed that year when they not only won the Premiership but the Heineken Cup as well, but while Munster’s stars, like Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, have fine records against Premiership clubs, the outcome of this encounter is too close to call.
The all-Premiership contest featuring Sale Sharks and Bristol Bears sees two teams specialising in attacking rugby, and the respective coaches, Alex Sanderson and Pat Lam, now have several weeks to prepare their squads which have still to reach their full potential this campaign.
Leicester Tigers, top of the Premiership and the top side in Pool B after the opening four matches, should be favourites to beat Clermont Auvergne who struggled in the competition, and with Harlequins competing so effectively, not least fly half Marcus Smith and forward Alex Dombrandt, you’d put money on them beating Montpellier who’ve also failed to make much of an impression.
Later this week, we’ll be taking a close look at the Gallagher Premiership matches this weekend.