Champions Cup: Sunday's quarter-final talking points - Toulouse vs Ulster; Exeter vs Northampton
Sunday's Champions Cup quarter-finals: Toulouse vs Ulster (12.30pm kick off); Exeter vs Northampton (5.30pm kick off)
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 20/09/20 9:12am
We take a closer look at the talking points ahead of Sunday's Champions Cup quarter-final clashes as Toulouse host Ulster, and Exeter play Northampton...
Toulouse with history on their minds?
While much of the talk this week has been about Leinster, the Irish juggernaut aren't the only club in history with four European Cup titles to their name.
Indeed they weren't the first to reach that milestone either. That honour fell to Toulouse - for years the greatest and most talented club side in Europe, and this week gearing up to host Ulster at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.
Despite all their success, the 2010's became something of a malaise for the Top 14 outfit, however. For so long the kings of Europe (three titles by 2005 and another in 2010) and the bedrock of French rugby, before last season, Stade Toulousain had not competed in the final four of the European Cup since 2011.
Absent from the top table of Europe for so long, Ugo Mola and Regis Sonnes' charges exploded back onto the scene last season with a series of stunning displays of attacking rugby, courtesy of a revitalised and youthful squad.
They fell to Leinster in the semi-finals of the European Cup in Dublin, but did go on to win the Top 14 final, beating Clermont.
World Cup-winning Springbok back Cheslin Kolbe is one of the most in-form players in the world at present, while Romain Ntamack, Maxime Medard, Thomas Ramos, Sofiane Guitoune, Yoann Huget and outstanding scrum-half Antoine Dupont have each lit up the European Cup at points over the last couple of years.
This season, Toulouse are one of only two sides to have have won all six pool games - Leinster the other - travelling to the likes of Montpellier, Gloucester and Connacht and sealing victories.
If they can beat Ulster on Sunday, a semi-final trip to Exeter or hosting of Northampton awaits. Toulouse may yet have their eyes on a historic fifth crown too.
Ulster - quite the turnaround but lacking consistency
It's not too long ago that Irish rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll referred to Ulster as a "basket case" of a club.
For four seasons in a row between 2015 and 2018, Ulster failed to get out of their pool in Europe, while until this season they had failed to make a final in any competition since 2013.
The 2017/18 campaign proved Ulster's annus horribilis. Les Kiss was sacked in January, while his successor Jono Gibbes departed at the end of the season to New Zealand for supposed family reasons - before turning around and taking the top job at La Rochelle in France. CEO Shane Logan also stepped down that summer.
On the pitch, it was Ulster's worst campaign in a decade. Out of the Champions Cup at the pool stage, and ranked seventh in the PRO14 - indeed it took a final game playoff with Ospreys even to qualify for the 2018/19 Champions Cup.
This was also the year where two Ulster players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were arrested, charged and stood trial for rape. They were ultimately found not guilty to wide condemnation, but their contracts were terminated.
The court case had also sucked in Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best and Iain Henderson, both of whom received criticism for attending due to concerns their presence could be seen as intimidating to the victim.
The murky episode provoked outrage across the island of Ireland, divided supporters within the northern province, and as public relations go, it was an unmitigated disaster.
Star man Charles Piutau departed for Bristol, while club legend Tommy Bowe retired. The club was demonstrably all over the place.
Dan McFarland was appointed that summer and has done a monumental job. Not only has the ship been steadied but it's sailing comfortably.
Last season, Ulster built throughout the campaign and by April played more than well enough to defeat Leinster in the quarter-finals of the European Cup in Dublin. Indeed, had Jacob Stockdale not dropped the ball in the act of grounding after a sensational run, they surely would have.
Where last season they made the quarter-finals in Europe and semi-finals in the PRO14, they went one better this year domestically by making the final of the PRO14, before losing out to Leinster as consistency of performance has continued to allude them.
In Europe, they progressed from a tough group, losing just once from six games with Clermont, Bath and Harlequins, and now face Toulouse away, where they will likely need their best performance in several years to book a last-four place.
That said, the odds are shorter on a victory in Toulouse than they would have been on the remarkable recovery Ulster have made in 18 months. From a club in crisis to one competing at the top again.
Chiefs to make history? Or Saints to cause a shock?
Exeter have been one of the top performers in the Premiership for several years now - in fact, they have made some four finals on the bounce, and are already assured of topping the table this season too.
But for all that domestic prowess and success, the Chiefs have been unable to transfer that into a single meaningful run in Europe.
In fact over that same four year time-frame, Exeter have progressed from their Champions Cup pool just once, and that was back in 2016 - where they lost to Wasps by a point in the last minute.
The club have, therefore, never made a European Cup semi-final in their history. On Sunday, they will never have a better chance.
Their opponents Northampton sit seventh in the Premiership standings after an uninspiring campaign, and haven't picked up a victory at Sandy Park since February 2014.
From the last eight meetings between the pair, Saints have won just once while Exeter have won seven times, while looking back further, Northampton have won only three of the last 10 meetings between the clubs.
What reads more daunting for Saints is the points conceded over their last few visits to Devon. Totals of 57, 42, 40, 31 and 36 have been shipped on their last five trips to Sandy Park.
This season, the Chiefs completed the double over Saints, crushing them 57-7 back in February at home, and travelling to Franklins Gardens two weeks ago and winning 22-19.
Northampton may have the greater European Cup pedigree, having become champions in 2000 and made a final in 2011 - one they lost from the jaws of victory against Leinster, having been 22-6 ahead, but an away win on Sunday would constitute a shock of huge proportions.
If Exeter can win and finally book a semi-final place, they will face either Toulouse or Ulster, and crucially, that game will be at Sandy Park too - the competition rules having been adapted due to Covid-19 to allow for home venue advantage and not just home country advantage in the semi-final for the top two seeds.
Having never made even a semi-final before, could Exeter end up going the whole way?