This term's Champions Cup has already contained many twists and turns and Round 5 was absolutely no different as it delivered last-gasp surprises and enthralling matches. After their impressive form, and Round 5 victories, both Saracens and the Leicester Tigers throughly deserve their home quarter-finals and three others keep their European hopes alive. Of Wasps, Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs, Dai Young's side are in the most advantageous position however how long will it take them to, emotionally and physically, get over their Sunday evening loss to Toulon?
The weekend started in France where Rob Baxter's fresh faced Exeter Chiefs pushed Bordeaux Bègles all the way in a thrilling Pool 2 game. The match was precariously poised, 20-20 at the break, however Marco Tauleigne's late try snatched the crucial victory for the home side. Without question it would have been hugely frustrating to lose the game so late on however what we saw from Rob Baxter's side was extremely positive. As a collective the team had just 18 first-team starts this season between them and they proved that the Chiefs' squad depth is stronger than some thought. Without question this French sojourn will have a positive impact going into this Sunday evening's shoot out against Ospreys and then back into the Aviva Premiership.
At Allianz Park, due to their prior hard work, Saracens knew that a victory would secure them a home quarter-final and they were ruthless in their delivery of it. That said Ulster Rugby did enjoy the stronger start to the game, Jared Payne re-introduced himself well to the competition however just before half-time Billy Vunipola's try swung the momentum and the home side never looked back. After the break Saracens shifted up into another gear and Ulster simply couldn't cope. Physically Mark McCall's side were imperious as they rectified the issues that they'd had at The Stoop the week prior. On an individual note Owen Farrell had one of his strongest games in a Saracens shirt that I've seen and Schalk Brits' impact off the bench was magnificent. All in all Saracens proved that their loss to Harlequins was just a one off and that they remain firmly at the top of the European pile.
It was a totally different story over in Dublin where Bath Rugby frustrated themselves yet again. Mike Ford's side knew that they needed two victories in their last two games to keep Europe alive however couldn't get over the first hurdle. In this match Leo Cullan had taken the opportunity to 'look to the future' and his young men didn't disappoint, instead the likes of Gary Ringrose, Ross Molony and Josh Van Der Flier flourished. So many of the positives that we saw from Bath last weekend; physical dominance, a strong set piece and attacking confidence didn't fully manifest themselves again in Dublin. Instead key opportunities were missed due to handling errors, they were overpowered physically and their discipline was an issue. Ultimately it was a disappointing afternoon for Bath and this week they'll need to batten down the hatches for a barrage of criticism will fly their way. They may be out of the reckoning however could still have a great deal of say in how Pool 5 pans out when RC Toulon arrive in town. I'll be covering that game live from The Rec and once again we need to see a vast step up in performance before they tackle the three-time Champions.
The final Saturday match was the most straight-forward of the weekend as the Leicester Tigers dismissed Benetton Treviso with ease. Even a spot of snow couldn't veer Leicester's determined European form off course and they will head to Stade Francais Paris feeling extremely confident. Naturally 'Manu watch' was in full flow as he started at 12 and showed us that he hasn't lost any of his immense physical strength. He does remain a touch rusty defensively however that's understandable after so long out of the game and should continue on a very rapid upward trajectory over the next few games. Elsewhere both Youngs brothers had strong days at the office, Tom was given a rapturous reception from the home crowd, and Ben continued to snipe away brilliantly. Dom Barrow thoroughly deserved his Man of the Match award and across the park Leicester were just too experienced and too powerful for Treviso. It's onwards and upwards for Richard Cockerill's side, how different they are to this time last year!
At Franklin's Gardens the Northampton Saints gave their fans a mini heart-attack with the manner in which they took their Pool 3 match. Gregor Townsend's Glasgow Warriors had a 15-12 lead with 10 minutes to go and the Saints were staring a European exit in the face until one young man stepped up and was counted for. It was terrible to see Tom Collins stretched off the field after just 26 minutes, and I wish him a speedy recovery, however it was his replacement that had a decisive impact on the match. Harry Mallinder has been waiting patiently for his opportunity and boy did he seize it with both hands. Tim Swinson's red mist saw him receive a yelllow-card and a trio of Saints combined to pull the victory out of the bag. Stephen Myler's cross-field kick was beautifully weighted, George North's athleticism and quick hands were sublime and then Mallinder junior held his cool to execute the score. The Northampton Saints still aren't playing their most fluid rugby, indeed Mallinder senior admitted that it was an 'edgy performance', however they got the job done and live to fight for another weekend in Europe.