Heineken Champions Cup: Premiership and Top 14 high-fliers face off

Damian Penaud, Chris Ashton, Marcus Smith and Zach Mercer
Damian Penaud, Chris Ashton, Marcus Smith and Zach Mercer are among the headline stars in the Champions Cup last 16

Destination Marseille. The road to the Champions Cup final begins to intensify with more Anglo-French hostilities in the last 16.

France were crowned men's Six Nations champions after beating England in March, and the two sides are on a collision course for the title in the women's tournament.

Could the Champions Cup prove to be an extension of 'Le Crunch'?

BBC Sport takes a look at two key ties in the knockout stages of Europe's premier club competition.

When are the games and who remains?

The Champions Cup last-16 first-leg games will take place over this weekend with the return legs scheduled for 15-17 April.

The four highest-ranked clubs in each pool - Racing, Ulster, La Rochelle, Leinster, Leicester, Harlequins, Munster and Bristol - will have home advantage in the second-leg matches.

It is the first time that a two-leg format has been deployed in the last 16 with contests decided by aggregate scores.

If teams are level on points at the end of the second leg, extra time will be played. If the teams still cannot be split on the scoreboard, then the number of tries scored in the contest and, finally, a place-kick competition will be the tie-breaker.

Here is the last-16 first-leg line-up (all times BST):

Friday, 8 April

Connacht v Leinster (20:00)

Saturday, 9 April

Sale Sharks v Bristol Bears (13:00)

Bordeaux-Begles v La Rochelle (13:00)

Toulouse v Ulster (15:15)

Exeter v Munster (17:30)

Stade Francais v Racing 92 (17:30)

Sunday, 10 April

Montpellier v Harlequins (13:00)

Clermont Auvergne v Leicester (15:15)

English champions face French leaders

Danny Care
Harlequins come into the weekend on the back of a 41-14 win away to London Irish

"I can't wait to get out there," Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care told Rugby Union Weekly about his team's trip to Montpellier.

The English champions take on the French Top 14 leaders in a mouth-watering tie. And, with restrictions on travel from England to France eased, Quins are crossing the Channel with a healthy backing.

"I think we are taking over 1,000 fans so it should be an amazing atmosphere," added Care.

"It feels like forever since we have gone away and had a big Champions Cup knockout trip at a European powerhouse.

"They are absolutely flying in their domestic league so it is going to be tough."

Quins may be making their first appearance in the knockout stages of the competition since 2013, but they won every pool game with some late drama en route.

With the clock in the red, they recovered to beat Castres by three points as Alex Dombrandt completed a hat-trick of tries in front of a partisan Stoop.

That followed reeling in Cardiff, who were 14 points clear in the second half, to snatch victory the weekend before.

Montpellier beat Quins in the 2016 Challenge Cup final, and they will be out to inflict another defeat on the English champions.

Among their squad is Zach Mercer, who has been a big hit in France since leaving Bath last summer.

The 24-year-old won his most recent England cap in the win over Japan in November 2018, but is a key part of a pack that also includes France internationals Paul Willemse, Guilhem Guirado and Mohamed Haouas.

Runaway Premiership leaders against the nearly men

Leicester Tigers have been in the groove in the Premiership this season - leading the table by 12 points after winning 17 of their 20 games.

That form has also been transferred into Europe with a perfect record in the pool stages, which also included the award of a 28-0 win over Bordeaux-Begles after a Covid outbreak among the French side forced the cancellation of their meeting.

Leicester lifted the trophy in consecutive years in 2001 and 2002, as well as losing in the final to Wasps in 2007, but this will be their first appearance in the knockout stages since reaching the semi-finals in 2016.

They take on three-time runners-up Clermont Auvergne - and one Tiger who knows his way around a French defence is Chris Ashton.

The winger scored 24 tries - a Top 14 record for a single campaign - during his time with Toulon.

Stade Marcel-Michelin
Clermont fans' pride and passion make Stade Marcel-Michelin a formidable place to play

"The Stade Marcel-Michelin an amazing place to play," he said.

"There are not many better places in Europe to play rugby."

Leicester captain Ellis Genge agrees.

"Their fans, their passion, I am all over that," he said.

"It reminds me of our home ground. I love it. I think it is amazing. What a stadium, and I can't wait to get over there and get involved."

Clermont have had a disappointing season by their standards, sitting eighth in their domestic table, but in France winger Damian Penaud, who finished the Six Nations as joint-top try scorer, they have a real threat.

Former All Black centre George Moala, Penaud's international team-mate Alivereti Raka and Japan's Kotaro Matsushima also feature in a dangerous backline.

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