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Ulster demise gives Saracens lifeline

La Rochelle's fullback Kini Murimurivalu (R) dives and scores a try as Harlequins' fullback Ian Prior jumps to tackle on January 21, 2018
AFP

Paris (AFP) – Holders Saracens are through to the European Champions Cup quarter-finals after Wasps thrashed Ulster 26-7 on Sunday.

Munster and French pair La Rochelle and Racing 92 also progressed with wins against Castres, Harlequins and Leicester respectively.

Ulster came into the weekend as one of three Irish sides topping their groups but their crushing defeat at free-scoring Wasps meant they dropped to third in pool 1 and out of contention.

La Rochelle beat Harlequins 16-7 to top that stanza and despite moving up to second, Wasps missed out on the quarters.

Saracens had been in desperate waters following back-to-back pool 2 defeats to Clermont and a draw at Ospreys but they hammered Northampton 62-14 on Saturday and that was enough to see them squeak into the knock-out stages, where they will face a trip to dominant Leinster.

The Irish outfit completed a perfect pool stage campaign with a 23-14 victory at Montpellier on Saturday, but despite finishing with the best record they won’t be relishing the prospect of a last-eight clash with the champions.

Ulster looked set to make it a perfect pool stage for the Irish but ran into an inspired Wasps, who claimed a bonus point thanks to tries from Guy Thompson, Tom Cruise, South African full-back Willie Le Roux and Jake Cooper-Woolley, Danny Cipriani going three from four with the conversions.

Ulster’s reply from Sean Reidy was scant consolation.

Had Ulster won, no English side would have made it into the quarter-finals — and that just two years after five Premiership sides made it into the last eight.

– Munster romp –

Twice winners Munster needed to beat Castres to ensure they would top pool 4 and they never looked in any danger, racking up six tries in a 48-3 thumping to qualify as third seeds, meaning they will face three-time winners Toulon in the last eight.

Keith Earls, Rhys Marshall, Simon Zebo, Alex Wootton and James Cronin crossed the whitewash while Munster also scored a penalty try as they recorded a 60th win in 64 European games at Thomond Park and a record 17th qualification for the quarter-finals.

La Rochelle scored tries through Pierre Aguillon and Kini Murimurivalu in the first half to take control against Quins, who ruined Wasps’ hopes with a last-gasp winning try last week.

Playing in the Champions Cup for the first time, La Rochelle now face a trip to pool 5 winners Scarlets — the first Welsh side in six years to reach the knock-out stage.

Finalists two years ago, Racing earned their berth by hanging on to beat Leicester 23-20 in the snowy English midlands.

The Parisians scored two tries in the first 12 minutes against a team who were already eliminated.

Yet Leicester responded to the early scores by Henry Chavancy and Maxime Machenaud with a display of pride. George Ford kicked three penalties before Brendon O’Connor scored a try early in the second half.

Twice in the last 15 minutes, Ford converted penalties to level the scores, but Machenaud restored the French lead both times.

In the dying seconds, Leicester won a penalty five metres from the line. The Tigers decided they would rather gamble on scoring a try to win rather than kicking a penalty for a draw, but Racing’s defence held firm.

“We knew it was on the line,” Racing’s Irish lock forward Donnacha Ryan said. “We showed great determination in the end.”

Racing will play away to French champions and last season’s finalists Clermont in the quarters.

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