The Champions Cup certainly didn’t fail to deliver this weekend as supporters were treated to a feast of high-quality knockout rugby.
All four games were still in the balance come the final quarter and Leinster, Munster, Scarlets and Racing 92 can all look forward to the semi-finals in three weeks time to take one step closer to lifting the trophy in Bilbao come May.
There were some standout performances over the weekend and based on what we saw – here is our Champions Cup team of the weekend.
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets)
Might seem harsh on Chris Ashton who was excellent for Toulon at Thomond Park, but Leigh Halfpenny was instrumental in keeping the scoreboard ticking over for his side at a record crowd at Parc y Scarlets on Friday evening.
The Welsh international kicked 19 points for the Scarlets and he was fantastic from the tee. Halfpenny also contributed with 65 metres made for his side, the most of any of his teammates.
14. Andrew Conway (Munster)
Although Andrew Conway shifted to full-back after Simon Zebo went off injured in the opening quarter, we’re keeping him on the wing for our team of the weekend. The Dublin-born Munster star will go down in history for scoring one of the greatest and most important tries at Thomond Park in the European Cup.
The awareness to spot the space, the agility and dexterity to catch the ball while staying in touch and then the pure acceleration which Conway showed to send the Thomond Park crowd into raptures was amazing to see live.
Not only this, but Conway was incredible in defence, denying Josua Tuisova an almost certain try in the opening minutes after shunting the big man into touch just before he could dot down in the corner. Considering Conway hasn’t played any rugby since the final Champions Cup pool fixture against Castres back in January, this makes his performance all that more impressive.
13. Sammy Arnold (Munster)
The narrative going into this fixture was the size difference between Munster and Toulon’s centre partnerships. Despite succumbing to a huge weight difference against his opposite number Bastareaud, Sammy Arnold was a key cog in the incredible Munster defensive effort on Saturday afternoon.
Peter O’Mahony said after the game that it was the best defensive performance from a Munster backline he has ever seen and Arnold was instrumental in that.
12. Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
You wouldn’t think Isa Nacewa is 35-years-old with the shift he put in against back-to-back European champions Saracens on Sunday. The Kiwi came back into the fold at inside-centre for Leinster as he spearheaded a sublime defensive effort against the bruising Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch.
Played a huge role in Garry Ringrose’s try in the opening minutes and with Nacewa at the helm, Leinster could well do the double this season.
11. Jame Lowe (Leinster)
The player who always has a smile on his face, Lowe probably didn’t get as much ball as he would have liked on Sunday but when he did get it, he always looked like creating something. He created Ringrose’s try in the opening minutes due to his acceleration and fend on Liam Williams before offloading to Nacewa who subsequently passed to Ringrose to run in.
He is proving to be one of the most popular players among Leinster supporters and it’s not hard to see why.
10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
Despite being on the receiving end of multiple late challenges from the ‘Wolf Pack’, Sexton never flinched as he guided a backline effort which cut open a mean Saracens defence. Great from the tee, including a 48m penalty, Sexton proved his world-class stature once again on the biggest of occasions.
9. Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92)
This might seem harsh on Conor Murray who showed his rugby intellect with his crucial try in the first half but Machenaud was one of the reasons Racing pulled clear of Clermont in a blistering second half in the south of France.
Kept the scoreboard ticking over for his side with some very tough kicks and his crisp passing paved the way for an unrelenting backline performance from the Parisian outfit. Got the better of his opposite number Morgan Parra which is no mean feat.
Crucial to both club and country.
1. Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
Despite being on the losing side against Leinster, Vunipola was crucial to everything positive about Saracens’ display. Topped the carrying charts with 20 to his name, Vunipola was still getting over the gain-line and making breaks after the 70-minute mark.
With the absence of his brother, Billy, much of the onus is on the loosehead to get go-forward ball and he has done this for both England and Sarries this season.
2. Ken Owens (Scarlets)
An awesome performance from the captain who led from the front throughout the game. He topped the tackling charts for his side in a frantic encounter against La Rochelle and he was also calm and composed when it came to the setpiece.
Perhaps more importantly, his leadership was excellent, essentially talking the referee out of sin-binning Tadhg Beirne a crucial moment in that game.
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
It’s almost a guarantee that Furlong will be in a piece like this if he is involved. Arguably the best tighthead in the world at the moment, the ‘Jukebox’ showed it again on Sunday.
Made a phenomenal 15 carries in the game and gave Mako Vunipola a tough time in the scrum, Furlong was excellent and his play in the loose was his typical devastating best.
4. Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92)
One of the most unorthodox second-rows in world rugby, Nakarawa was at his powerful best against Clermont on Sunday as his first-half try showed the ridiculous pace the big man has as he accelerated towards the line.
The ease at which he can offload is a joy to behold and his partnership with Donnacha Ryan in the engine room has to be up there with the best in European rugby.
5. James Ryan (Leinster)
So that’s 19 games as a professional for James Ryan and still no loss to his name – remarkable. The young man was brilliant against Saracens and he picked up where he left off at Twickenham by getting the better of an indisciplined Maro Itoje. Tackled relentlessly and carried with aggression, Ryan is a brilliant player and it’s scary to consider how good he could become.
6. Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
The Munster captain was crucial in Munster’s win over Toulon, especially in the lineout. Besides a number of lineout steals, O’Mahony made sure that any Toulon ball that was won was scrappy, giving his defensive line more time to set and fight back against any pre-planned Toulon power-plays. A captain’s performance.
7. Dan Leavy (Leinster)
Probably one of the most in-form opensides in Europe at the moment, Leavy was at the forefront of a brilliant Leinster display. Leavy showed excellent acceleration and awareness for his early second-half try. A pest at the breakdown, Leavy also topped the metres made charts and was second in the tackling stakes, a no-nonsense, energetic performance.
8. CJ Stander (Munster)
Like with Ireland, much of CJ Stander’s work requires carrying in the most unenviable of circumstances. Often choiced with being the man to carry into a brick wall to set up a defensive exit or generate some momentum, Stander did so without any fuss and got 15 carries to his name.
Also spearheaded a great defensive effort with 17 tackles.