Bumper weekend leaves all four provinces on brink of knockouts

Last-16 format leaves potential for all four Irish sides to qualify for the first time ever

Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune scores his sides first try despite the attentions of Tom Collins and George Furbank. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune scores his sides first try despite the attentions of Tom Collins and George Furbank. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

A facile 89-7 win for Leinster over Montpellier, eclipsing their biggest winning margin when beating Bourgoin 92-17 in 2004, along with Ulster’s more hard-earned 24-20 victory away to Northampton, has strengthened the likelihood of all four Irish sides advancing to the Heineken Champions Cup knockout stages for the first time ever.

Admittedly, this comes with the rather large caveat that the knockout stages have been expanded to a round of 16, to be played over two legs in April. Indeed, with next weekend’s fourth and final round of matches to come, the vagaries of this new format are highlighted by the fact that, mathematically, any of the 24 teams can still qualify, even pointless Ospreys.

As things stand, only seven teams having definitely ensured a place in the last 16, with Ulster’s win leaving them second behind Racing on 14 points and ensuring those two and third placed La Rochelle are sure of qualification.

The same is true of Harlequins, Leicester, Munster and Bristol in Pool B after Gavin Coombes plundered that late match-winning try in Castres on Friday night.

Leinster and Connacht, each needing one more point to be absolutely sure of advancing, will assuredly do so as well, although this will be of scant consolation to Connacht after letting slip a 28-10 lead at home to Leicester on Saturday.

Andy Friend’s team travel to Paris for their final pool game next Sunday against Stade Francais, while Leinster are away to Bath on Saturday.

Nor was Leo Cullen doing cartwheels about Leinster’s standing in Pool B even though they significantly boosted their points differential in running in 13 tries against a seriously depowered Montpellier.

“We’ll see where we are. It’s trying to get over to Bath next week and win the game, and if you get a bonus point, great. If you get into an opportunity when you’re in the last 15 minutes, can you score another try, get another seven points.

“The problem for us is we are reasonably early in the round, there’ll be a lot to play out after our game,” Cullen added, mindful of their 1pm kick-off time in the Rec.

“The big thing is try and win the game, ideally get a bonus point, but again the conditions can be difficult at The Rec. Maybe a win will be enough on the day.”

Nor was it any consolation to Cullen that Leinster have their destiny in their own hands, for the four-time winners had set their sights on the highest possible seeding, with a view to securing the carrot of potentially lucrative and helpful home advantage in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.

“Yeah, but where we want to be in terms of higher seedings which, as we know, matter massively in the tournament it would be handy to have those extra two points having said that, and the 28 points as well, potentially.” he said, in reference to Montpellier being awarded a 28-0 walkover in their cancelled round two game rather than a draw, or had it gone ahead.

“You want to finish with a higher seeding, if you set your sights on trying to go as far into the tournament as you possibly can there’s all these little things that make a big difference. You would hope that it was looked at again, potentially.”

The only fly in his ointment arising from their rout of Montpellier was the slight hamstring injury which prevented James Ryan captaining the side, a dead leg for Jordan Larmour and, more disconcertingly given his calf problems last year, the calf strain which forced off Tadhg Furlong in the sixth minute.

“We’re hoping it’s not too bad,” said Cullen,

An amalgam of players who needed game time, others on the fringes and six espoirs, four of whom were teenagers in the starting line-up, Montpellier did at least fulfill the fixture, albeit more in body than spirit.

But Leinster could do no more than treat the fixture on its merits, and were impressively clinical given it was their first outing in five weeks.

Cullen also took a particularly coach’s perspective on eclipsing the winning margin over Bourgoin in 2004.

“When you bring that up, all I’m thinking of is what happened the following week,” said Cullen in reference to the return meeting, which Leinster won 26-23 thanks to a late Brian O’Driscoll try.

“We were scrapping at the end and Brian scored a try to get us out of a lot of trouble. It was a very different type of challenge and that’s the thing for our guys to understand pretty early in the week, that it’s a totally different challenge, going away from home, regardless of where.

“Any team when they’re at home, especially a team like that with a lot of tradition in the tournament will front up with plenty of pride and battle away. Even in their game yesterday, they were heavily down by 32-0 but came back and scored three tries. And they stuck in even in our game in the Aviva if you remember. In fact they pretty much won the second half against us, certainly the last 30 minutes.”

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