Champions Cup: Leinster on course to be top seeds with possible Munster or Ulster clash in last-16

Leo Cullen’s side next meet Racing 92 who are still clinging on to knockout hopes

Leinster’s marquee fixture against Racing 92 at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday (kick-off 3.15pm) took on a new dimension on Sunday after the Parisians overcame Harlequins 30-29 in a see-saw encounter in La Defense Arena to maintain their hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages.

Racing started the day in 11th place in Pool A but their win elevated them to eighth and the three-time runners-up, beaten by Leinster in the 2018 final, will now likely be at full-strength again next Saturday as they seek to keep their qualification hopes alive.

With Caelan Doris outstanding again and Jamie Osborne to the manor born on his full Champions Cup debut, Leinster’s third bonus-point win in three games by 49-14 in Gloucester on Saturday leaves them atop Pool A.

Given their points difference of +123, another win of any hue against Racing will nail down a top seeding, so ensuring that Leinster would remain at the Aviva for the remainder of the tournament through to the final there on May 20th – provided they keep winning.


“We’ve got Racing in the Aviva next week. It’s exciting for our players to be in front of friends and family,” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, adding: “Racing are tricky opponents for us, they’ve plenty of quality in their squad, in front of close to a full house.”

Were they to top Pool A, there is also the distinct possibility of Leinster hosting either Munster or Ulster in the last 16 a week after the Six Nations.

Although Munster took a significant step toward the knock-out stages again with Saturday’s ultimately gritty, 14-man, 27-23 win over Northampton at Thomond Park in front of 22,295 supporters, results elsewhere in a more competitive Pool B have conspired against them.

An example was the Ospreys picking up five points and Montpellier two as the Welsh region took a major step toward qualifying for the knock-out stages for the first time in 13 years with their 35-29 win last Saturday night.

The Stormers also completed a bonus-point, 28-14 win away to London Irish on Sunday, whose brace of red cards took the weekend’s tally in the Champions Cup to five, so moving the South Africans above Munster.

Graham Rowntree’s side stand sixth and come kick-off away to Toulouse next Saturday (4.15pm local time/3.15pm Irish time) could yet find themselves outside the top eight. More likely, perhaps, is that they will be in eighth, and thus possibly facing the prospect of an away last 16 tie against Leinster.

“Regardless of what the qualification looks like, we need to go there and win again,” said Rowntree. “That’s what you do for the next game and what a challenge. One of the toughest places to go in the world and win a game of rugby, and I think we can.

“The last time we played them we showed elements of our game really improving. I think we’re better now than we were then, so we’ll go there for the win regardless of what the qualification ramifications are.”

However, no less than Leinster, Toulouse will be targeting first place in Pool B. Tied on 13 points with La Rochelle, whose points difference is only eight inferior, Toulouse will also know exactly what is required of them after Ronan O’Gara’s men face a Northampton team out of the running at lunchtime on Saturday.

Munster would be in a more secure position but for the Jack O’Donoghue red card which left them with 14 men for virtually the last hour and probably prevented them from adding to their three tries in the first half-hour. But, to his credit, Rowntree had no qualms with that decision.

“There’s a huge onus on coaches and players to show better pictures and to keep consistently working on our tackle height. We’ll keep driving that.”

Another scenario is that Ulster beat Sale at the Kingspan Stadium next Saturday night (k.o. 8pm) in what could effectively amount to a knock-out tie, in which case Dan McFarland’s team could finish eighth and potentially face Leinster in the last 16.

This followed Ulster’s gut-wrenching 7-3 defeat in horrific conditions in La Rochelle last Saturday night – thanks to an 81st-minute try by Joel Sclavi.

“We haven’t had a home game in the Champions Cup yet,” McFarland said ruefully in reference to their home game against La Rochelle being moved to the Aviva Stadium, a week after they lost 39-0 away to Sale when travel disruptions meant they only arrived on the day of the game.

“It’s a match that we want to show our true colours [in] and at least demonstrate to them what we’re about because we didn’t do it last time,” McFarland added.

Connacht secured a place in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup with Saturday’s facile 61-5, nine-try win over a callow Brive which featured an Alex Wootton hat-trick.

Given the Pool B leaders Cardiff host Brive next weekend, and Toulon host Zebre after climbing to second with a 35-23 win at Bath on Sunday, a top two seeding looks beyond Connacht. Furthermore, with Bristol and Glasgow also on 14 points just behind them, Connacht may well need to beat Newcastle next Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm) to secure a top four finish and a home last 16 tie.

“It was a good win, but we need to finish this competition well and see where we are next week,” said Friend. “It was about making the knock-out stages, and now it’s making it in the best position, so there’s a lot to play for in a bid to get home advantage.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times