Heineken Champions Cup: Five things we learned from the penultimate weekend

Elliot Daly, Jack O'Donoghue and Jamie Osborne
Saracens, Munster and Leinster won the third round of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup

Eight of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup last 16 teams have been confirmed – but half the places are still up for grabs.

Three sides from England, two from France and one each from Ireland, South Africa and Scotland reached the knockout stages with a game to spare.

So what are the key talking points from the third round and penultimate weekend of the pool stage?

BBC Sport looks back at five things we learned.

Daly and Smith boost Six Nations chances

Europe’s premier club competition has taken center stage since the turn of the year, but many of the players involved will have their eye on selection for the upcoming Six Nations.

Elliot Daly has not been selected in England’s squad for the autumn internationals – last picked by Eddie Jones – and he will be keen to shine in front of new England coach Steve Borthwick in Saracens’ play with Lyon.

It didn’t take long for the experienced full-back to make his mark as Borthwick looked on at the StoneX Stadium.

Daly completed a seven-minute hat-trick with three excellent goals at 48-28 win to put himself firmly in the frame for an England recall.

Harlequins‘ Marcus Smith has not played since England’s defeat by South Africa in November and any rust in the game will be the focus of attention when the fly-half faces influential Scottish opponent Finn Russell as the opposite color in the game at Races 92.

Smith started slowly as Russell marshalled his backline and Racing took control, but the 23-year-old came alive after the break and had a hand in both Cadan Murley’s tries.

Quins may have lost narrowly 30-29 (display, other). but Smith’s ability to set up defenders and get past them, as well as his accurate shooting, caught the eye.

The referees place a marker

Five red cards were issued during the third round as players were penalized for high tackles and direct contact with the head.

Sale‘with Cobus Wiese, Exeter‘with Henry Slade, Munster‘with Jack O’Donoghue and London Irish couple Ben Loader and Ciaran Parker all dropped out at the weekend.

Referees have acted to protect players by waving red cards for direct contact with the head, while some may feel that extenuating circumstances are not always taken into account.

One of them was London Irish boss Declan Kidney, who said he was concerned about the impact of “trials on TV”.

He added: “TV is a huge part of the game and we have to work together, but I think TV has a bit of a temptation.

“At the moment it is such an emotional process and it is talked about, so that the process gets a fair hearing, it is not right to try to collect points.

“The [disciplinary] The system will go through what is and what you want, and then a fair hearing is at the end.

“TV is a hugely important aspect of the whole sport, but it’s a balancing act of decision-making before the process takes place during the week.”

Kidney explained: “There was a time before the TMO, or anything that went into it, that you had to make instinctive decisions about a foul and what a tackle was.

“Is the game safer now because of that? It probably is. But on the one hand, we ask the TMOs not to intervene and speed up the game, but on the other hand, when you knock something down second by second, the way it looks can be significantly different.

“There are things that happen that don’t get looked at and others that are microscopic and get a huge amount of time. Is it right that this is happening?

“One could argue that yes, but one could also argue that if you look at everything microscopically, we’d be here all day.”

Scottish national team secured

Scottish side Edinburgh are to last 16 after pleasant 34-21 (display, other). win at Castres,

Despite first-half tries from Dave Cherry and Bill Mata, the French side took the lead after Josaia Raisuqe, Adrien Seguret and Wilfrid Hounkpatin all crossed the ball.

But Mike Blair’s side were much better after the break, with Cammy Hutchison and Ben Vellacott skipping the whitewash to secure the bonus point.

In the meantime, Ospreys are flying the Welsh flag in Group B but have yet to seal qualification, even after 35-29 (view, professional). victory over the French champion Montpellier.

Alex Cuthbert scored twice, Justin Tipuric and Morgan Morris also scored, and Cai Evans scored 15 points. The Ospreys can qualify with a point from their next round game against Leicester, who have already qualified with three wins from three.

A South African clean sweep…almost

Three South African teams entered the tournament for the first time this season and, with Sharks already in the knockouts, Bulls and Stormy they are not far behind.

The Sharks cruised past Bordeaux Begles 32-3 to secure their place in the last 16, while the Bulls and Stormers need just a point each to qualify.

The Bulls avenged last month’s loss at Exeter Chiefs with a bonus point 39-28 (view, other). victory over the 14-man Premiership side, while the Stormers had too much for London Irish’s 13-man with 28-14 (display, other). away win.

Can anyone stop Leinster?

Four-time champions Leinster the best Group A with a full number of 15 points after three wins from the first three games.

The Irish province racked up 148 points and scored 22 tries – eight more than anyone else in the competition.

Leinster have nailed down their place in the last 16 Gloucester 49-14 (display, other). at Kingsholm as Jordan Larmour, Michael Ala’alatoa, Jamie Osborne and Caelan Doris tried to secure a first half bonus point.

Irish internationals Hugo Keenan, Josh van der Flier and Ronan Kelleher scored additional tries in the second half.

The rest looks ominous…

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