Lions Watch: Itoje leads from front and Nowell weaves his magic

A blockbuster weekend of European rugby saw the long-awaited return of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup as the continent’s best teams locked horns once again. [more]

Lions Watch: Itoje leads from front and Nowell weaves his magic

The action started on Friday night as Bristol Bears brushed aside Dragons in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals with a scintillating display from the hosts at Ashton Gate.

Saracens then produced a stunning display to end Leinster’s undefeated season in a rematch of last season’s Champions Cup final, with the visitors winning 25-17 in Dublin.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh and Scarlets were knocked out by French Top 14 outfits Bordeaux Begles and Toulon, respectively, while Ulster suffered a similar fate against Toulouse.

The weekend’s action concluded with an all-English battle at Sandy Park, where Exeter Chiefs stormed into the Champions Cup semi-finals with victory over Northampton Saints.

ITOJE INTENSITY ROCKS LEINSTER 

The meeting between reigning champions Saracens and last year’s beaten finalists Leinster at the Aviva Stadium was always marked out as the game of the weekend.

And it certainly didn’t fail to deliver as a gluttony of British & Irish Lions featured for both teams in the quarter-final showdown, which ended in victory for the clinical visitors.

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2017 tourist Maro Itoje was among those who enhanced his reputation, with the second rower at the heart of Saracens’ outstanding defensive effort against the men in blue.

Elliot Daly also impressed with two huge penalties to put the visitors 22-3 ahead at half-time, while Mako Vunipola’s herculean scrummaging and 16 tackles were just as influential.

The Irish province responded after the break with tries from Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour, with Johnny Sexton converting, but it ultimately proved too little, too late.

Sunday’s Champions Cup finale then saw another Lion land a telling blow as Jack Nowell demonstrated his quick feet to beat multiple defenders and score against Northampton Saints.

Nowell’s score just after the restart allowed the hosts to stretch their lead at Sandy Park and despite strong resistance from Saints, Exeter emerged triumphant 38-15 to reach the last four of Europe’s premier competition for the first time in their history.

EARL OF ASHTON GATE 

There is already a wealth of options for Warren Gatland to choose from in the back row for the 2021 Tour but it looks like Ben Earl’s name could be added to the list.

Earl has made a huge impact for Bristol Bears since joining on loan from Saracens and he was right in the thick of the action again during their thumping win over Dragons.

While two-time Lions tourist Jamie Roberts was making his debut for Dragons, it was Earl who deserved all the headlines for his double in the 56-17 victory at Ashton Gate.

The 22-year-old benefitted from a superbly worked move by Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau for his opening score, racing over for Bristol’s second try after Dragons had started brightly.

Radradra then combined with the openside again minutes later before Earl slipped past Jordan Williams with a magnificent sidestep and crossed for his second of the evening.

KOLBE A CLASS ABOVE AGAIN 

French teams enjoyed a successful weekend in both European competitions as Racing 92, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Toulon all secured their safe passage to the last four stage.

Finn Russell, another 2017 tourist, pulled the strings expertly for Racing 92 as they overcame fellow Top 14 side Clermont – including the key pass for Louis Dupichot’s opening try.

Elsewhere, three-time tourist Leigh Halfpenny, who was player of the series in 2013, showed his class despite Scarlets slipping to a narrow 11-6 defeat to Toulon.

Halfpenny kicked a couple of penalties and denied a certain try with a last-ditch tackle but Italian giant Sergio Parisse’s try ultimately proved the difference in France.

But it was Cheslin Kolbe’s performance for Toulouse that will have drawn the attention of Lions fans, with the South African winger scoring another brace in his side’s 36-8 win over Ulster.

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