An eventful weekend in the European Challenge Cup quarter finals saw two away wins, for Gloucester Rugby and Cardiff Blues. These wins have altered the makeup of the semi-finals significantly; both these sides will now play at home as a reward for winning on the road.
Here’s a review of the European Challenge Cup quarter finals, and the semifinals line-up.
Pau 35 – Stade Français 32
Pau made it seven wins from seven in the Challenge Cup by overcoming a gritty Stade Français side who seemed less willing to concede their title than might have been expected. The home team, one of the Top 14’s form sides, opened a 27-7 lead with three tries in 37 minutes, but Stade lock Charlie Francoz scored three minutes into first half overtime to spark a mini comeback.
— Challenge Cup France (@ChallengeCup_FR) March 31, 2018
An intercept try from Djibril Camara in the ‘second 43rd minute mark’ narrowed the gap to just three points. Pau didn’t panic though, and were able to score their fourth through hooker Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes to increase the lead.
With the score at 32-27 heading into the final ten minutes, Stade were always chasing the game and missed kicks from Jules Plisson ultimately proved costly. Pau’s Tom Taylor knocked over a penalty for 35-27, meaning that Marvin O’Connor’s late try was too little too late for Stade.
Newcastle Falcons 25 – Brive 10
Job done for the Falcons as they returned to the more familiar surroundings of Kingston Park, comfortably putting away dogged French strugglers Brive. Two early tries from prop Scott Wilson and wing Zach Kibirige could’ve opened the floodgates for the Falcons, but Brive number eight Etienne Herjean pounced on a knock-on, to run 60 metres to score.
The halftime score of 12-10 persisted until just before the hour mark, when Toby Flood burst through on an arcing run to set Alex Tait free on the right wing to score the first of two tries. The second was also created by Flood, who threw a looping pass wide for Tait to dot down in the same corner.
There was no way back for Brive and Newcastle continue their fantastic season to secure a first European semi-final in ten years.
Two-try Tait! pic.twitter.com/dAxhGSjiNs
— Newcastle Falcons (@FalconsRugby) March 31, 2018
Away wins in European Challenge Cup quarter finals
Connacht 28 – Gloucester 33
A very lively lunchtime match in Galway saw Gloucester edge Connacht after both sides scored four tries each. In windy conditions, it was ultimately superior place kicking from the visitors that saw them home.
There was another ‘Man of the Match’ performance from Gloucester centre Henry Trinder who must now be knocking loudly on Eddie Jones’ door. Trinder boasted the best attacking stats for Gloucester, with 56 meters made from eight carries, five defenders beaten and three clean breaks. His try encapsulated all of these skills, as he danced round a defender then powered over despite attention from three tacklers.
It was an end-to-end game but in fact, Gloucester were only behind for seven minutes in the entire game. The lack of conversions on the first four tries meant it was tit-for-tat with each score. Notable scores were for returning Grand Slam winner Bundee Aki and for John Afoa (see below) on his 100th appearance for Gloucester.
Connacht did mount an attempted comeback, with the late Matt Healy try bringing the scores closer. But the final Billy Twelvetrees penalty saw them through, in the European Challenge Cup quarter finals highly-charged match. Johan Ackerman said there was “a mixed feeling; performance wise, but proud of the effort by the boys” as he looks ahead for his teams next major European rugby challenge.
— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) March 31, 2018
Edinburgh 6 – Cardiff Blues 20
Cardiff Blues made it a great weekend for Welsh rugby as they followed the Scarlets into a European semi final. Edinburgh, who won all six pool games, will be hugely disappointed to lose a second successive home Challenge Cup quarter final. The architect of this win was Cardiff fly-half Jarrod Evans who set up the first try and kicked 10 points to guide the Blues to a home semi-final. It was two kicks in behind on the right wing that undid Edinburgh within the opening half hour.
First a crossfield kick from Evans came off the head of Nathan Fowles and into the grateful hands of Ellis Jenkins who just had to catch the ball and fall to the floor to score. Less than 10 minutes later Gareth Anscombe put a grubber through which Edinburgh again couldn’t deal with, allowing Blaine Scully to score and put Cardiff 14-3 up.
Evans and Edinburgh flyhalf Jaco van der Walt traded penalties in the second half but, a huge Welsh defensive effort led by Josh Navidi prevented any comeback.
Challenge Cup Semi-final lineup
These results mean a knock-out semi-final lineup as follows:
Your Challenge Cup semi-finals!
— Challenge Cup (@ERChallengeCup) March 31, 2018
The reward for the semifinal winning sides will be a trip to Bilbao for the grand final. It has become harder to predict the winners, now Cardiff and Gloucester have home ties. League form would suggest Pau and Newcastle might progress; however both will be focused on their respective play-off chances.
Gloucester and Cardiff will be too, but will also note that a Challenge Cup win would guarantee a Champions Cup place which, their league finish may not.
These circumstances, the anticipation and history set up a pair of fascinating semi-finals, after a wonderful weekend of Challenge Cup Quarter Finals.
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