Gerry Thornley’s Champions Cup state of play

European rugby returns for the key pre-Christmas double-headers

Leinster face a tough double-header against  Gareth Steenson’s in-form  Exeter Chiefs side in the Champions Cup. Photograph: Harry Trump/Getty Images

Leinster face a tough double-header against Gareth Steenson’s in-form Exeter Chiefs side in the Champions Cup. Photograph: Harry Trump/Getty Images

 

A team may not necessarily qualify for the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup by dint of their exploits over the next two weekends, but they can go a long way towards doing so. What’s more, these upcoming two rounds can effectively rule a team out of contention.

Akin to mini two-legged knockout ties, last season only four teams completed doubles in the third and fourth rounds, but unsurprisingly all four ultimately advanced to the quarter-finals.

More strikingly though, the 10 teams to emerge from the two rounds with the better head-to-head records over their opponents in December all eventually finished in the top two places in their respective pools. The two teams who missed out despite having the better head-to-head records in rounds three and four – Montpellier and Bordeaux – were left to rue costly ‘second leg’ defeats to Castres and Exeter.

But all of the 10 teams who came out with inferior head-to-head records over the two legs finished third and fourth in their pools and so failed to qualify.

Put another way, therefore, at the very least a team needs to win these two-legged affairs, ie emerge with the better head-to-head records by the end of next weekend, to entertain realistic hopes of advancing.

POOL 1

Results so far: Harlequins 27 La Rochelle 34, Ulster 19 Wasps 9; La Rochelle 41 Ulster 177, Wasps 41 Harlequins 10.

Remaining fixtures – Sunday: Harlequins v Ulster (1pm), La Rochelle v Wasps (2pm local time, 1pm Irish); Dec 15th:Ulster v Harlequins (7.45pm), Wasps v La Rochelle (1pm). Jan 12/13/14: Harlequins v Wasps, Ulster v La Rochelle. Jan 19/20/21: La Rochelle v Harlequins, Wasps v Ulster.

The way results have panned out so far in this group, emerging from their back-to-back meetings with Harlequins with a superior head-to-head record may not be sufficient for Ulster if they are to advance to the last eight. Each are inconsistent, but Ulster probably need to win both games.

They may have missed a trick at home to an injury ravaged Wasps side, whose results have since picked up, especially when then obtaining nothing from their beating by La Rochelle. La Rochelle leapfrogged Montpellier atop the Top 14 with last Saturday’s 26-14 win, their seventh in their last eight games, and look like bucking the trend whereby debutants have to cut their teeth initially in Europe.

POOL 2

Results so far: Northampton 13 Saracens 57, Ospreys 21 Clermont 26; Clermont 24 Northampton 7, Saracens 36 Ospreys 34.

Remaining fixtures – Saturday: Northampton v Ospreys (5.30pm); Sunday: Saracens v Clermont (3.15pm). Dec 17th: Ospreys v Northampton (3.15pm), Clermont v Saracens (4.15pm local time/3.15pm Irish). Jan 12/13/14: Northampton v Clermont, Ospreys v Saracens. Jan 19/20/21: Clermont v Ospreys, Saracens v Northampton.

One of three pools where teams with two wins apiece go head to head, and therefore look like going a long way towards determining qualification.

Admittedly, whoever comes off second best between back-to-back champions Saracens – who have lost three Premiership games in a row – and Clermont, could well still advance given the form of Northampton and the Ospreys.

Clermont’s Bouclier de Brennus hangover sees them ninth in Top 14, without an away win, but they have a 100 per cent record at home and are prioritising Europe, albeit they’ve been hit hard by injuries, notably to Camille Lopez.

POOL 3

Results so far: Leinster 24 Montpellier 17, Exeter 24 Glasgow 15; Glasgow 18 Leinster 34, Montpellier 24 Exeter 27.

Remaining fixtures – Friday: Glasgow v Montpellier (7.45pm); Sunday: Exeter v Leinster (5.30pm). Dec 16th: Leinster v Exeter (3.15pm), Montpellier v Glasgow (2pm local time, 1pm Irish). Jan 12/13/14: Exeter v Montpellier, Leinster v Glasgow. Jan 19/20/21: Glasgow v Exeter, Montpellier v Leinster.

Leinster’s games against the English champions and in-form Premiership leaders at Sandy Park next Sunday and at the Aviva on Saturday week look pivotal, and if they can emerge with the better head-to-head record after picking up bonus point wins to date they will be well placed.

That said, Exeter do have a mightily impressive win away to Montpellier in the bag. Despite losing their last two games away to Racing and La Rochelle, the handsomely backed French side are second in the Top 14 and travel to Glasgow on Friday night in what amounts to a do-or-die mission for both sides.

POOL 4

Results so far: Racing 22 Leicester 18, Castres 17 Munster 17; Leicester 51 Castres 29, Munster 14 Racing 7. Remaining fixtures – Saturday: Castres v Racing (6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish), Munster v Leicester (7.45pm). Dec 19th: Racing v Castres (4.15pm local time/3.15pm Irish); Dec 20th: Leicester v Munster (5.30pm). Jan: 12/13/14: Castres v Leicester, Racing v Munster. Jan 19/20/21: Leicester v Racing, Munster v Castres.

A fiercely competitive pool and thus liable to only produce one qualifier, it therefore seems imperative for Munster to at least emerge from their back-to-back meetings against Leicester with the better head-to-head record.

Two years ago they lost both games and went out, last season they took six match points to four and went through as group winners. It will be interesting to see Castres’ level of interest in their squabbles with Racing. Five successive wins have seen them rise to fifth in the Top 14, one place below Racing, who have four on the bounce.

POOL 5

Results so far: Toulon 21 Scarlets 20, Bath 23 Benetton 0; Benetton 29 Toulon 30, Scarlets 13 Bath 18.

Remaining fixtures – Saturday: Scarlets v Benetton (1pm), Toulon v Bath (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish). Dec 19th: Benetton v Scarlets (2pm local time/1pm Irish), Bath v Toulon (5.30pm). Jan 12/13/14: Bath v Scarlets, Toulon v Benetton. Jan 19/20/21: Benetton v Bath, Scarlets v Toulon.

Not the most inspiring pool to date. The meetings between Toulon and Bath certainly look like producing the pool winners. Toulon, Euro kingpins until Saracens came along, have been highly fortunate to date, and arrested a run of three successive defeats domestically, including a 40-29 home loss to Racing, by beating Lyon last time out at home.

Bath, despite being beaten handsomely by Exeter last Saturday, sit fourth in the Premiership. Two wins over Benetton, though no longer whipping boys, would propel Scarlets back into contention, not least as the supposed big two look beatable.

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