World Cup winner hails Ospreys challenge for European glory

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Ospreys players celebrate winning the Heineken Champions Cup match against Leicester. Photo Tim Goode PA Images

Simon Thomas

World Cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio has hailed the Ospreys as the story of the European season so far, while tipping BKT United Rugby Championship leaders Leinster to lift the Heineken Champions Cup.

Despite being drawn with English and French title holders Leicester and Montpellier, Toby Booth’s Ospreys won three of their four pool matches and earned a losing bonus point in the other.

They booked a spot in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup through a dramatic 27-26 victory over the Tigers at Welford Road, with No 8 Jac Morgan forcing his way over in the final play and fellow Wales squad member Owen Williams landing the match-winning conversion against his former team.

They will now look to claim another prize English scalp on the road when they travel to Saracens in the last 16 on the weekend of April 1.

All four Welsh sides have qualified for the European knock-out stages, with the Scarlets, Cardiff and the Dragons progressing in the EPCR Challenge Cup, which Dallaglio feels is partly down to the Warren Gatland effect.

resilient

Speaking on BT Sport, the former England and Lions star said: “The Ospreys are the story of the competition so far. To go to Montpellier and win and do the same in Leicester, to beat the French and English champions, you thoroughly deserve your place in the last 16.

“They were resilient enough to stay in the fight through their defense and then showed their game management and attacking skills. They have got so much quality across their back row and that can sometimes really keep them in big games.”

He added: “Since Warren Gatland has been announced as coming back to Wales, suddenly there has been a huge lift. It was all doom and gloom in Welsh rugby. He comes back and suddenly some of their best players are playing very well.

“There are some Welsh players really putting their hand up.”

Asked to pick out his favorites to be crowned European champions, Dallaglio said: “You’ve got to say Leinster. They are scoring 37.5 points per game on average. With the final in Dublin, they are the favourites, come on.”

Leinster’s Garry Ringrose (centre) scores against Racing 92. Photo Niall Carson PA Images

Fellow BT Sport pundit Brian O’Driscoll is hedging his bets a bit more.

“La Rochelle, Toulouse and Leinster – I see the winner out of the three of them,” said the Ireland and Lions legend.

“I am always wary of La Rochelle. They are going about their business quietly.”

Leinster made it 16 wins out of 16 matches in all competitions this season with a 36-10 victory over Racing 92 in front of a crowd of more than 40,000 at the Aviva Stadium to finish top of Pool A.

But they were trailing at one point and O’Driscoll did see some signs of vulnerability from his former team.

“You thought who is going to put it up to them and then they looked human and again it’s against one of the big powerful teams in Europe,” said the ex-centre.

“If you are looking for some sort of Achilles heel, where they have come unstuck in the past, it’s been against big opposition, Saracens, La Rochelle. They found it tough against Toulouse as well.

“They are definitely going to have to work on their defensive maul. They have had a little bit of weakness there. They are going to have to keep their discipline, so teams don’t have opportunity to kick into that five meter channel and maul them over.

“You’ve got to bring your power game against Leinster, stop them in the collision zone and slow their ruck ball down.”

It will be an all-Irish showdown in the Champions Cup last 16, with URC table-toppers Leinster hosting fourth-placed Ulster, who qualified thanks to a 22-11 win over Sale in a titanic tussle at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium.

Doubts

O’Driscoll commented: “Ulster have been in a pretty big hole. They had lost six of the last seven before the weekend. They just couldn’t buy a win and there were doubts and uncertainty creeping in.

“They had a really bad loss to Sale in the corresponding fixture. So this was winner is going to qualify between the two.

“It was the ball-carrying ability of some of Ulster’s big players, like Nick Timoney and Duane Vermeulen, that gave them that all-important go forward and some platforming.

“I am not saying they have fully recovered, but they have shown some bottle after a tough few weeks. They are still alive which is the most important thing. When you are alive, there is hope.”

Giving his thoughts on their last 16 trip to Dublin, O’Driscoll said: “We have been here before. Ulster very nearly turned Leinster over in a quarter-final a few seasons back. Those derby games can sometimes be equalisers.

“But you have to anticipate, on what we’ve seen in the competition so far, that Leinster will just have too much fire power for them.”

O’Driscoll also praised a “pretty impressive” Munster display in a narrow 20-16 defeat away to five-times champions Toulouse.

Both Scottish teams are through to the knock-out stages of Europe, with Edinburgh rounding off their group campaign with a 20-14 triumph over Saracens.

Dallaglio said: “They looked like they were winning that all the way through.

“They travel to Leicester in the last 16 now and that will be a really interesting one. The Tigers have already lost at home once in Europe this season, to the Ospreys, they won’t want to do it again.”

South African sides

All four of South Africa’s URC teams have reached the knock-out stages, along with former PRO14 team the Cheetahs.

The DHL Stormers and Cell C Sharks will have home ties in the Champions Cup, hosting Harlequins and Munster in Cape Town and Durban respectively.

O’Driscoll said: “It’s great to have the South African teams getting into the knock-out stages in their first year.

“Stormers v Quins has the makings of a great game. They both like to play rugby. That could potentially be the fixture of the last 16 on paper.

“The Stormers possess this huge power game, with big advantage line players, and have numerous fleet of foot backs. They can play lots of different variety to their game. They will be a very tough team to beat Cape Town on a fast track down there. They are scoring some great tries.”


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