Heineken Champions Cup: all you need to know ahead of the final pool fixtures
All four provinces can reach European quarter-finals with victory this weekend
Joey Carbery inspired Munster to a comprehensive win over Gloucester at Kingsholm. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
So far, so good. This weekend all four Irish provinces have their destiny in their own hands as they bid to make it into the knockout stages of European competition.
If everything goes to plan in the final round of pool fixtures then Ireland should have three representatives in the last-eight of Europe’s premier club tournament.
However, there is also the improbable chance all three could see their European journeys end this weekend.
A thrilling denouement awaits - here is all you need to know ahead of the final round of the Heineken Champions Cup pool stages.
Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all in action and while they find themselves in positions of varied strength all three know victory will see them safely through. Ulster are the first province in action as they travel to Welford Road to play Leicester on Saturday afternoon. Munster then welcome Exeter to Thomond Park at teatime on Saturday before Leinster face Wasps in Coventry on Sunday.
The full fixtures
Friday January 18th
Pool Five: Edinburgh v Montpellier, 7.45pm, Murrayfield (BT Sport/beIN)
Pool Five: Newcastle v Toulon, 7.45pm. Kingston Park (BT Sport/beIN)
Saturday January 19th
Pool Three: Saracens v Glasgow Warriors, 1.0pm, Allianz Park (BT Sport)
Pool Three: Cardiff Blues v Lyon, 1.0pm, Arms Park (BT Sport/beIN)
Pool Four: Racing 92 v Scarlets, 3.15pm, La Defense Arena (beIN/BT Sport)
Pool Four: Leicester Tigers v Ulster, 3.15pm, Welford Road (BT Sport)
Pool Two: Munster v Exeter, 5.30pm, Thomond Park (BT Sport/Channel Four/Virgin)
Pool Two: Castres v Gloucester, 5.30pm, Stade Pierre Fabre (beIN/BT Sport)
Sunday January 20th
Pool One: Toulouse v Bath, 3.15pm, Stade Ernest Wallon (BT Sport/beIN)
Pool Two: Wasps v Leinster, 3.15pm, Ricoh Arena (BT Sport)
How can I watch?
It has been a good week for terrestrial viewers, with Leinster’s win over Toulouse at the RDS the televised game from round five. And it gets better with potentially the best fixture of this weekend being shown free-to-air.
Indeed, Munster’s clash with Exeter under the Limerick lights has all the makings of a classic, and that game will now be shown on Channel 4 and Virgin Media, after the broadcasters selected it as their televised fixture.
You can also follow all three of the provinces via the Irish Times liveblog.
What’s the latest?
The defending champions headed into last weekend’s clash against a resurgent Toulouse missing a number of key players - including Johnny Sexton. Any fears Leo Cullen’s side would be caught out in their own backyard were quickly dismissed, as the province avenged their second round away defeat in fine style, running out comfortable 29-13 winners at the RDS. It was Toulouse’s first defeat in 13 fixtures, and showed Leinster’s frightening strength-in-depth.
Any European Cup away trip is tricky, particularly a visit to play a side placed fourth in the English Premiership. However, Johann van Graan’s side made it look easy against Gloucester last Friday night, thrashing the Cherry and Whites 41-15 at Kingsholm. Joey Carbery was a deserved man-of-the-match, dazzling with a brace of tries and 26-points, comfortably outshining opposite number Danny Cipriani.
Ulster were the third and final province in action in the fifth round and delivered arguably the biggest result, edging out last year’s finalists Racing 92 26-22 in Belfast. It was a scrappy game but one which showed the province’s ability to mix it with the big boys - while the irrepressible Jacob Stockdale notched up another two tries, both fine finishes.
Who needs what to qualify?
Leinster lead Pool One with 20 points - three clear of Toulouse - and are all but through to the quarter-finals. Victory away to Wasps on Sunday would see Leo Cullen’s side top the pool, while pole position would also be guaranteed should Bath get an improbable result away to Toulouse. But, if Montpellier beat Edinburgh on Friday, with the Scottish side earning two bonus points - as well as Glasgow winning away to Saracens and Munster, Ulster and Toulouse all winning - then Leinster would be out. The chances of this, however, are remote.
Munster currently lead Pool Two on 17 points, with Exeter four behind on 13. The province welcome the Chiefs to Thomond Park on Saturday evening knowing a losing bonus point would almost certainly be enough to progress to the quarter-finals. Should Exeter win by more than seven points in Limerick, and Munster don’t score four tries, then the English Premiership side will top the pool. It is highly unlikely 17 points would be enough for Munster to qualify as runners-up.
Dan McFarland’s Ulster are currently second in Pool Four on 18 points, with Racing 92 leading the way on 21. The province travel to Welford Road to play Leicester on Saturday knowing a win would guarantee a place in the quarter-finals, although with Racing facing the Scarlets at home in their final pool game it is unlikely they will top the group. A losing bonus point would also be enough for Ulster to make it into the last-eight. Ulster’s current tally of 18 points could be enough to see them progress - providing two of Toulouse, Exeter or Montpellier are beaten.
What’s the state of play?
Leinster and Toulouse both know victories will guarantee their place in the quarter-finals, with the province topping the the pool and the French as runners-up. An improbable Toulouse defeat at home to Bath might not be terminal to their hopes, providing Exeter and Montpellier both lose.
Munster are in pole position and know a win against Exeter will be enough to win the group. The English side arrive under the Tomond Park lights needing to win by more than seven points, while ensuring the hosts don’t score more than four tries, in order to qualify as pool winners.
Saracens are the only side who are mathematically through to the quarter-finals. They welcome Glasgow Warriors to Allianz Park this weekend, and the Scots - currently on 19 points - will join them in the last eight if either Toulouse, Ulster or Montpellier are beaten.
Racing 92 (21 points) lead the pool - Ulster can overtake them if they beat Leicester Tigers away and Racing lose at home to the Scarlets - Racing would still be likely to qualify as runners-up if they suffer an unlikely defeat. Again, Ulster’s current tally of 18 points could be enough to see them progress - providing two of Toulouse, Exeter or Montpellier are beaten.
The result of Edinburgh’s clash with Montpellier on Friday night will have implications elsewhere. The Scots (19 points) lead the pool and victory over Montpellier (16 points)will see them top the group. If Montpellier fail to pick up at least two losing bonus points from their trip to Murrayfield - and Exeter don’t take five points from their clash with Munster - then Ulster’s place in the quarter-finals is guaranteed. If Montpellier beat Edinburgh and deny the Scots a bonus point then they will top the pool.
You can read the full permutations for each province and pool HERE.
Any injury concerns?
Johnny Sexton missed the win over Toulouse with a knee tendon issue, and will also miss the trip to play Wasps. Ross Byrne deputised ably against the French and is set to take the number 10 jersey again at the Ricoh Arena.
A long-term injury to Luke McGrath was the one negative from last weekend’s win - his absence means Jamison Gibson-Park is likely to start at scrumhalf, with either James Lowe or Scott Fardy selected as the second ‘non-EU’ player. Robbie Henshaw (hamstring), Devin Toner (ankle) and Seán O’Brien (broken arm), Rob Kearney (quad) and Dan Leavy (calf) could all feature.
Peter O’Mahony limped off during the win over Gloucester and remains a doubt for the Exeter game with a rib injury. Chris Farrell meanwhile came through the clash at Kingsholm with aplomb and will be fit to start against the Chiefs.
John Cooney pulled out of the win over Racing 92 after suffering a back spasm in the warm-up, and his hopes of involvement against Leicester remain in the balance. Billy Burns picked up a calf strain against the French and is also being monitored ahead of the trip to Welford Road.
Can I go?
Unsurprisingly, Thomond Park is sold out for Saturday evening’s fixture. Any Ulster fans travelling to Leicester can still buy match tickets HERE. There is also plenty of availability for Wasps versus Leinster at the Ricoh Arena - you can find tickets HERE.
What’s the betting?
Leicester 6-4 Draw 20-1 Ulster 8-15 (Handicap Ulster -4 10-11)
Munster 4-11 Draw 20-1 Exeter 11-5 (Handicap Munster -6 10-11)
Wasps 15-2 Draw 40-1 Leinster 1-16 (Handicap Leinster -18 10-11)
Who’s on the whistle?
France’s Alexandre Ruiz will take charge of Leicester against Ulster, with compatriot Jérome Garcès then officiating Munster’s clash with Exeter. Scotland’s Mike Adamson will referee Leinster’s final pool fixture against Wasps.
What happens after?
The eight sides who qualify for the quarter-finals will be seeded from 1-8 depending on their overall points total. The top four seeds will be guaranteed home quarter-finals, with the top two seeds then in line to get home semi-finals.
The quarter-final line-up will be as follows:
1 v 8
2 v 7
3 v 6
4 v 5
When are the quarter-finals?
The first knockout stage will be played on the weekend of Friday March 29th.
And what about Connacht?
All four provinces can qualify for European knockouts. Connacht are currently level with Sale Sharks at the top of their Challenge Cup Pool Three. Andy Friend’s side travel to play Bordeaux-Begles on Saturday, while Sale are expected to beat Perpignan at home. Victory for Connacht and an unlikely defeat for Sale would see them progress as pool winners.
It could be another glorious weekend for Irish rugby.