Talk of Europe: Henderson wary as Rennie rues luck

Andy Baber
12 January 2020

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After another scintillating weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, we still seem no closer to knowing who will be playing who in the last eight of the competition.

It wasn’t a memorable weekend for the majority of Guinness PRO14 clubs at Europe’s top table, with Leinster the only side tasting victory with a 42-14 success at home to Lyon.

With just one round of fixtures left in the group stage, we will head into next weekend’s games with something riding on the majority of them. Home advantage isn’t secured for the table-toppers, while the race for the three best second-placed teams is tighter than ever.

Here we take a look at the best lines coming out of the fifth slate of European fixtures.

Ulster taking nothing for granted

The Irish side came out second best in the battle of the top two in Pool 3, with Clermont taking a 29-13 win in France.

As is so often the case in recent times, John Cooney was the man Ulster looked to for points, and his penalty and self-converted try saw the visitors go into the interval 10-9 ahead.

But they couldn’t hold on to that lead in the second period, as Alivereti Raka and George Moala both went over to seal a last eight berth for the hosts.

“Every game is an opportunity, and obviously coming in at half-time a point up, we were in a really positive place,” reflected captain Iain Henderson after the game.

“We probably missed a few opportunities in the first half to give us a more solid foundation, and Clermont were just excellent in the second half.

“You can’t expect to get front-foot ball against a team like Clermont if you don’t get the basics right. I think we can take a lot of positives from the game, but also a lot to work on.”

Ulster head to Bath next weekend looking to get into the quarter finals as one of the best of the rest, but Henderson is prepared for a battle despite the English side already being knocked out of the competition.

“They are out of the tournament now, but that makes them more dangerous,” he added. “We can’t underestimate what they can bring across. They have good squad strength and depth.

“We have to be as switched on as we can be, and we can’t underestimate them.

“To make it out of the Pool stages would be a massive statement by this group and all we have been working towards.”

Leo and Leinster looking to lead the way

They may have made hard work of it at times, but Leinster are still in pole position to claim the number one seed after seeing off Lyon 42-14.

The Irish side missed a number of chances to score even more than the three tries they managed in the first-half, and even with a man disadvantage Lyon stayed in the game to only trail by seven at the interval.

“Lyon had a man in the bin and that is the period is where we struggled most,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen.

“They started to get a rumble on, we gave away a few penalties; eventually they get in. We looked a little bit edgy in the dressing room at half-time.”

Cullen was keen to praise the impact of his replacements in the second-half though, as they remained unbeaten after five matches, and look set to clinch a home quarter-final next week when they host Benetton.

“I thought the bench were generally pretty good as well, made good impact. Scored six, it could have potentially been more, but it is what we wanted out of the game, a win bonus-point and on we go.

“It was a very long week last week. We had a number of players who had been off for a few weeks, trying to get them back into the flow of things.

“Overall we are pretty pleased. Forcing things a little bit and getting too complicated (in what we were doing). We kicked the ball away cheaply when Lyon were down to 14 players.

“They played keep ball for a while. They are a big physical team, very heavy and once they got that rumble on they were hard to stop. We weathered the storm and got the job done eventually.”

Warriors left to rue what could have been

The Scottish side were ultimately contributors to their own downfall at Scotstoun on Saturday, with their ill-discipline being punished by the Chiefs throughout.

After racing into a 17-10 lead, Callum Gibbins was then shown the yellow card for leading with his shoulder, and in the blink of an eye Exeter took the lead with a quickfire brace of tries.

After going in to the break at 24 points apiece, Warriors then had two golden opportunities to take control of the game through Huw Jones, only for the chances to elude him.

A second sin-bin for Fraser Brown early in the second-half also proved costly, as Matt Kvesic crossed for his second of the game.

With that draw Warriors’ hopes now hang by a thread, with head coach Dave Rennie left to ponder what could have been.

“We’re disappointed because we did enough to get five points tonight. We couldn’t get the ball to sit up tonight, could we?” Rennie said.

“I think we had four clear opportunities if it had sat up. We created a lot of opportunities. We’re proud of the effort, frustrated as well.

“We made some pretty good decisions but in the end we didn’t get the result.

“Playing into the wind in the second half, we always felt that we could still play and kick into that. We just needed to turn some of that pressure into points and we didn’t.

“But Exeter are good, aren’t they? They get you around the goal line and ask a lot of questions of you.”

Although the Scot wasn’t so sure on the sin-bin decisions against his side, especially that of Gibbins.

“I’m a bit miffed about Callum’s one, but I understand that with Fraz it was three or four penalties in a row and someone had to go,” Rennie added.

“Callum’s wasn’t clear to me. He’s come in and cleaned out. I think there’s arm in there, there’s certainly no shoulder to the head or anything. It’s a collision which you have all the time.

“The ruck area was really messy. They were allowed to stand up as tacklers and loiter, which made it difficult for us to get quick ball off that. We’ll have a look and give the ref some feedback.”

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