Champions Cup: It’s make or break time in Europe
Gerry Thornley gives the lowdown from all the pools ahead of the penultimate weekend
Munster face a tough trip to the new state-of-the-art U Arena for Sunday’s Champions Cup Pool 4 game against Racing 92. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
Bearing in mind Toulon qualified as the third best runners-up with only three wins and 16 points last season, up to 16 of the 20 participants in the European Champions Cup can be described as mathematically still in the hunt for the quarter-finals. But this weekend’s penultimate round of matches will begin to sort out the wheat from the chaff.
Friday’s meeting between Bath and the Scarlets at the Rec has the look of a glorified knock-out tie in the first of two such Anglo-Welsh affairs. The second sees defending champions Saracens travel to the Ospreys on Saturday night.
Of the Irish sides, Leinster are best placed, and a win over Glasgow on Sunday should ensure qualification. Were Exeter to dent Montpellier’s hopes the day before, Leinster would do so as group winners.
A win over in-form Racing in their new U Arena on Sunday would ensure Munster’s progress as Pool 4 winners, though at the least they’ll need a bonus point to stay top, while Ulster may need to beat both all-singing, all-dancing La Rochelle at home and Wasps away.
A win for Connacht away to Worcester on Saturday would also secure qualification in the Challenge Cup and, almost certainly, a home quarter-final.
Results so far: Ulster 19 Wasps 9; Harlequins 27 La Rochelle 34; La Rochelle 41 Ulster 17; Wasps 41 Harlequins 10; Harlequins 5 Ulster 17; La Rochelle 49 Wasps 29; Ulster 52 Harlequins 24; Wasps 21 La Rochelle 3.
Remaining fixtures – Saturday: Ulster v La Rochelle (1.0), Harlequins v Wasps (5.30). Sunday Jan 21st: Wasps v Ulster (3.15), La Rochelle v Harlequins (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish).
La Rochelle’s decision to rotate their squad and suffer the consequences in their reverse fixture with Wasps was not a good result for Ulster. It leaves La Rochelle more in need at the Kingspan next Saturday (where a bonus-point win would secure qualification) and on the premise that Wasps take a maximum haul against Quins, could leave Ulster in need of two more wins. Alternatively, a losing bonus point at home to La Rochelle and a win away to Wasps could be enough for them to progress.
Results so far: Northampton 13 Saracens 57; Ospreys 21 Clermont 26; Clermont 24 Northampton 7; Saracens 36 Ospreys 34; Northampton 32 Ospreys 43; Saracens 14 Clermont 46; Ospreys 32 Northampton 15; Clermont 24 Saracens 21.
Remaining fixtures – Saturday: Northampton v Clermont (5.30), Ospreys v Saracens (7.45). Sat Jan 20th: Saracens v Northampton (3.15), Clermont v Ospreys (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish).
Saracens, the back-to-back champions, face a must-win tie away to the Ospreys on Saturday night but with a rampaging Billy Vunipola (absent since September) and Maro Itoje back in harness Sunday’s record 38-15 win away to Wasps was their third in a row after that seven-match losing streak. Injury-ravaged Clermont have virtually given up on their Top 14 defence (witness Sunday’s 58-6 defeat to Racing), instead putting all their eggs into Europe and the trek to Alan Gaffney’s Northampton, where a win would probably ensure qualification.
Results so far: Leinster 24 Montpellier 17; Exeter 24 Glasgow 15; Glasgow 18 Leinster 34; Montpellier 24 Exeter 27; Glasgow 22 Montpellier 29; Exeter 8 Leinster 18; Montpellier 36 Glasgow 26; Leinster 22 Exeter 17.
Remaining fixtures – Saturday: Exeter v Montpellier (3.15); Sunday: Leinster v Glasgow (1.0). Saturday January 20th: Glasgow v Exeter (1.00), Montpellier v Leinster (2.0 local time/1.0 Irish).
If Exeter can beat Montpellier at home on Saturday, or at least deny the French big spenders a win, then Leinster will entertain Glasgow on Sunday at the RDS knowing that a victory would secure first place in the group and qualification. Most likely, a win would ensure progress at least as one of the three best runners-up, although if Montpellier match their result against Glasgow, top spot would still be on the line when Leinster make the trek to the Altrad Stadium. Unhelpfully, Leinster will only have a six-day turnaround.
Results so far: Racing 22 Leicester 18; Castres 17 Munster 17; Leicester 54 Castres 29; Munster 14 Racing 7; Castres 16 Racing 13; Munster 33 Leicester 10; Racing 29 Castres 7; Leicester 16 Munster 25.
Remaining fixtures – Sunday: Racing 92 v Munster (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish), Castres v Leicester (6.30 local time/5.30 Irish). Sunday Jan 21st: Leicester v Racing 92 (1.0), Munster v Castres (1.0).
A win over Racing in their state-of-the-art U Arena will secure first place and qualification for Munster, but it’s a huge ask. Racing’s 58-6 win over Clermont on Sunday was their seventh in eight domestic games, and a win next Sunday by more than seven points would put them first. Against that, a bonus-point defeat on Sunday and a win at home to Castres on Sunday week would probably suffice for Munster. In-form Castres appear to be targeting a win over Leicester to stay in the mix.
Results so far: Bath 23 Benetton 0; Toulon 21 Scarlets 20; Scarlets 13 Bath 18; Benetton 29 Toulon 30; Scarlets 33 Benetton 28; Toulon 24 Bath 20; Benetton 12 Scarlets 31; Bath 26 Toulon 21.
Remaining fixtures – Friday: Bath v Scarlets (7.45). Sunday: Toulon v Benetton (2.0 local time/1.0 Irish). Saturday Jan 20th: Scarlets v Toulon (5.30), Benetton v Bath (6.30 local time/5.30 Irish).
In a wide-open group, featuring six one-score games so far, Bath host the Scarlets at the Rec on Friday night in what amounts to a knock-out tie, all the more so as the Scarlets scored the game’s only try in losing the first meeting. Bath, who lead the group despite having scored the least tries in the competition, finish away to Benetton, whom Toulon – six defeats in their last nine matches – will also be targeting this Sunday, with the final pecking order liable to go down to the wire on Saturday week.