Five things we learned from rugby union's European Cup pool stage
The European Champions Cup field is down to eight and will take a break until after the Six Nations. AFP Sport looks at five things we learned from the pool stage which ended on Sunday:
Saracens can concentrate on cup
-- After defending champions Saracens edged Racing 92 to set up a quarter-final against Leinster, the team they beat in last year's final, director of rugby Mark McCall's post-game interview was glum.
"This is the end of an era," said McCall, the day after Saracens announced they would accept relegation for breaking salary-cap regulations.
The Premiership campaign is now meaningless. After the season, the club will have to transform their squad. But that also means that, once they return from Six Nations duty, the club's highly-paid stars can focus just on Europe.
"There's no doubt the bunch of players we've got in our squad now aren't going to be the same bunch of players we have in the Championship next year," McCall said.
Wales sinks to new depths
-- The last 12 months have brought further glory for the Welsh national team: a Six Nations Grand Slam followed by a three-point semi-final loss to eventual champions South Africa in the World Cup.
Yet continuing international success seems to be built on crumbling foundations.
The Ospreys' 33-6 capitulation away to Munster meant they lost all six of their games and picked up just two bonus points.
That is not a record for a Welsh team. In the past decade, the Dragons and the Scarlets (twice) have collected just two points. But in those years there was another Welsh team which won games. This time, Ospreys were the only Welsh entrant.
Worse, in the past even the weakest Welsh teams have had someone else to look down on, usually Italians. But this year Treviso, unlike the Ospreys, won a game
Carl Hogg, the Ospreys forwards coach, suggested national success and regional failure may be linked.
"Obviously having players away at the World Cup and our injury list was always going to make playing in the Champions Cup very difficult and very challenging," he said after the loss in Ireland.
"But there are some green shoots. I see lots of positive elements."
Europe finally comes to Exeter
-- For the first time, Exeter's fans will have a chance to see their Chiefs play a European Champions Cup knockout game at Sandy Park.
Exeter put past European wobbles behind them as they beat La Rochelle on Saturday to top their pool and earn second seeding in the knockout rounds.
"It is hugely satisfying," said director of rugby Rob Baxter.
Their reward is a home tie against Northampton.
In six Champions Cup campaigns, the Chiefs have only played one knockout game, away to Wasps in 2016, when, leading by six points, they conceded a converted try in the last minute.
In April, Europe will come to them.
Toulouse and Leinster chase history
-- When Toulouse beat Gloucester 35-14 on Sunday they eased their path towards a first final in a decade.
Toulouse, who won the inaugural European Cup in 1996, earned a home quarter-final against Ulster.
"Before talking about a semi-final we have a quarter-final to win," said director of rugby Ugo Mola. "We haven't hosted a quarter-final for ten years."
If the seedings play out, the other finalist in Marseille in May will be the only other team with four titles, Leinster.
The Irish province must first overcome wounded Saracens, who have won the cup in three on the last four years, in Dublin.
"It's important we make it count, get a big crowd," said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.
National coaches count cost
-- With the Six Nations just two weeks away, national coaches might have been watching the weekend's European matches through their fingers.
Wales had already been lost prop Rhys Carre to a four-week ban for a red card in the fifth round.
On Sunday, teenage back Louis Rees-Zammit, just been called up to the Wales squad, limped off in the first half as Gloucester lost to Toulouse and was later seen hobbling on crutches.
England suffered a significant loss as No 8 Billy Vunipola went off as Saracens beat Racing 92 with a suspected broken forearm.
© 2020 AFP