Harlequins’ extraordinary failed comeback proves home and away rugby should be here to stay

Football, especially European football, has grown up with two-legged ties and nobody thinks it is anything but fair and desirable. Not necessarily the same in rugby, a similar system in the last-16 knockout ties in the Heineken Champions Cup did not receive the same universal plaudits before the ties played out last weekend.

When the points totals are almost always far higher and never in single goals, would the format work? After the drama and tension produced in several matches, the jury, as far as I am concerned, has returned a favorite verdict and the format is here to stay.

The first thing to say is that it is intrinsically better for opponents to each experience the benefit of playing at home, rather than having to roll with the luck of the draw. Granted, if one side is so badly beaten in the first tie, they will not make up the ground, even playing in front of their own fans in the second game.

However, take the example of Harlequins vs Montpellier. A very poor first 20 minutes in the first, away leg, led to Quins losing 40–26 and that would have been that under the previous system. When it came to the second leg at the Stoop the challenge for Quins was straight forward – play as we know they can and see what happens. No point in accumulating points by kicking penalties; a 14-point deficit required the bolder option to be taken.

For Montpellier the conundrum was different, and it was the same for all the sides that took reasonable leads into their second-leg matches. They should be able to defend a two converted-try lead, but do they play the same team or give a few fringe players a big game experience, something that might prove important later in the competition if they are called upon? Do they blast it like they did in the first game or play a solid set-piece game, backed up by direct no nonsense driving that absorbs time and drains defenses, without risking too much? This adds another level to the return legs, and you could see how this played throughout the second ties.

The French Top 14 leaders chose to leave a few of their previous starting XV on the bench and, because Quins were granted a second chance under the new format, that decision could, and should, have cost Montpellier the tie.

The pattern of play issue was wrenched from Montpellier’s hands as Quins set about playing with the calculated risk-taking that has made them so attractive to watch. The first 40 minutes of the game were as good as I can remember seeing for many years. If the first-minute try by Alex Dombrandt signaled intent, the length of the field effort finished by Joe Marchant drew as near a football frenzy as you will ever get from a rugby crowd.

The second half of the game developed into a tense and restricted affair, which was no less entertaining because it didn’t involve basketball-style derring-do. The Louis Lynagh try was greeted with as much acclaim as the Marchant effort as it should have been the winning score. Marcus Smith’s missed conversion was inexplicable and so Montpellier went through. Without two legs, fans would have been denied a wonderful day’s entertainment.

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