How they stand: Gerry Thornley’s Champions Cup pools guide
Leinster and Munster best placed of the Irish provinces heading into pivotal rounds
Leinster’s James Lowe tackles Cheslin Kolbe of Toulouse during their Heineken Champions Cup meeting in October. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Akin to two-legged eliminators in their own right, the Heineken Champions Cup returns with its traditional back-to-back double headers and, not unexpectedly, finds Leinster and Munster looking in better nick than Ulster.
Although Leinster let slip a chance to dominate Pool 1 last time out in Toulouse, they still have their destiny in their own hands and go into the first of their back-to-back games against Bath with their front-liners having been rested for three weeks.
The return meeting of the two four-time champions, Leinster and Toulouse, at the RDS in round five looks like determining this group and, helpfully for Leo Cullen’s men, Pool 1 concludes on the final Sunday after all the other groups are completed.
Munster too have their fate in their own hands, with all roads likely leading to a traditional Anglo-Irish, tea-time Thomond Park finale on January 19th against Exeter. Munster have an eight-day turnaround into that game whereas Exeter have six days.
At the very least Ulster need to emerge with a better head-to-head record over the next two Friday nights from their meetings with the Scarlets, given it looks such a competitive pool. Their problem is that the Welsh region’s need is even more acute after again losing their opening two matches.
Whereas Saracens appear to be romping away with Pool 3, elsewhere not all has gone to plan.
At the outset of the competition, Montpellier were 4/7 favourites to win Pool 5, with thrice champions Toulon at 2/1, along with Edinburgh at 8/1 and Newcastle rank outsiders at 22/1. Two rounds in, and they stand in exactly reverse order.
Hence, entering these pivotal rounds, Edinburgh and Newcastle will slug it out for the right to lead the group into January, whereas the Top 14 heavyweights are left to contest what looks like a two-legged eliminator, and which could even go some way to eliminating both.
As is usually the case, the picture will look much clearer come tea-time on Sunday week.
Having recovered from 14-0 and 21-13 deficits to lead 27-21 in Toulouse, Leinster were on the verge of a bonus point win and a five-point lead atop this group until that stunning 80 minute turnover try by Maxime Médard.
Toulouse could easily be bottom but, thanks also to Freddie Burns’ brain freeze toward the end of the first round game at the Rec, instead sit in pole position.
Nonetheless, Leinster have since had four successive bonus point Pro14 wins as against Bath’s one win in eight Premiership and European games. Although Leinster lost on their last trek to the Rec, they hold a 7-2 head-to-head lead including three previous wins there, and Johnny Sexton et al should be well primed.
Whereas Wasps have only one win, at home to Bristol, in their last six matches in the Premiership and Europe, buoyed by that win over Leinster, a Romain Ntamack-inspired Toulouse last week extended their winning run to seven with a 49-20 victory over Stade Francais.
Results so far: Leinster 52 Wasps 3; Bath 20 Toulouse 22; Wasps 35 Bath 35; Toulouse 28 Leinster 27.
Saturday December 8th: Bath v Leinster (3.15pm); Wasps v Toulouse (5.30pm).
Saturday December 15th: Toulouse v Wasps (3.15pm); Leinster v Bath (5.30pm).
Saturday January 12th: Leinster v Toulouse (1pm); Bath v Wasps (3.15pm).
Sunday January 20th: Wasps v Leinster (3.15pm); Toulouse v Bath (3.15pm).
Results so far have contrived to make Pool 2 the most competitive of the five as things stand, with four points separating first from fourth.
To further underline the importance of the forthcoming double header between the two, results so far have also left Munster and Castres occupying the top two places in this group. Peter O’Mahony and his Euro battle-hardened team thus have chance to assume command of this group after next Saturday’s visit to the Stade Pierre Fabre.
Munster’s draw in Sandy Park was a fine result, and coupled with a bonus point win over Gloucester, leaves them well placed, but with Conor Murray and Joey Carbery in harness for the first time in Munster red, they will need to press on as it would be no surprise to see Exeter stay within striking distance.
They suffered their first league loss last weekend at Harlequins, and although Gloucester have climbed to third, Exeter beat them 23-6 two weeks ago.
Results so far: Exeter 10 Munster 10; Gloucester 19 Castres 14; Castres 29 Exeter 25; Munster 36 Gloucester 22.
Saturday December 8th: Exeter v Gloucester (1pm).
Sunday, December 9th: Munster v Castres (1pm).
Friday December 14th: Gloucester v Exeter (7.45pm);
Saturday January 13th: Exeter v Castres (1pm).
Friday January 11th: Gloucester v Munster (7.45pm).
Sunday January 13th: Exeter v Castres (1pm).
Saturday January 19th: Munster v Exeter (5.30pm); Castres v Gloucester (5.30pm).
A dullish pool, not helped by its predictability and bunch of lunchtime kick-offs.
With 11 wins out of 11 to date in the Premiership and Europe, Saracens are the only remaining unbeaten side in all three major leagues and look to be in ominous form as they set a scorching pace both domestically and in this pool.
Their unbeaten run in all competitions extends to 20, their last defeat being by Leinster at the Aviva in the quarter-finals in April, and their win away against Glasgow already looks as if it was their toughest fixture in this group.
Lyon, the tournament’s sole debutants, are in the unusual position of playing all three away fixtures on synthetic surfaces and, fourth domestically, already seem out of contention and interest. This makes it likely a second team will progress from this group, and with Glasgow having won away to Cardiff and now facing a double header against Lyon, the Warriors look best placed to accompany Saracens into the last eight.
Results so far: Lyon 21 Cardiff 30; Glasgow 3 Satacens 13; Saracens 29 Lyon 10; Cardiff 12 Glasgow 29.
Saturday December 8th: Lyon v Glasgow (1pm); Saracens v Cardiff (1pm).
Saturday December 15th: Glasgow v Lyon (1pm); Cardiff v Saracens (1pm).
Sunday January 13th: Lyon v Saracens (3.15pm); Glasgow v Cardiff (3.15pm).
Saturday January 19th: Cardiff v Lyon (1pm); Saracens v Glasgow (1pm).
Ulster return to Parc Y Scarlets a fortnight on from their backs-to-the-wall 29-12 loss there, and while still short of last season’s form, the Scarlets are still well capable of another rescue mission in this unpredictable group.
Meanwhile, Racing and Leicester will be slugging it out over the next two Sundays. With Finn Russell pulling the strings, and a back three of Juan Imhoff, Simon Zebo and Teddy Thomas born and paid to score tries galore, Racing have at times been irresistible – especially under their indoor Defense Arena – and, at others, anything but. With a high casualty list, their unconvincing five-game winning run came to a halt last weekend at La Rochelle.
But Leicester’s 41-10 defeat by Bristol last week, conceding a try bonus point for the sixth time in nine Premiership matches, left them eighth and prompted Geordan Murphy to admit they’re fighting for Premiership survival. It still looks like Racing’s pool to lose.
Results so far: Ulster 24 Leicester 10; Scarlets 13 Racing 14; Leicester 45 Scarlets 27; Racing 44 Ulster 12.
Friday December 7th: Scarlets v Ulster (7.45pm).
Sunday December 9th: Racing v Leicester (3.15pm).
Friday December 14th: Ulster v Scarlets (7.45pm).
Saturday December 16th: Leicester v Racing (1pm).
Saturday January 12th: Ulster v Racing (3.15pm); Scarlets v Leicester (5.30pm).
Saturday January 19th: Leicester v Ulster (3.15pm); Racing v Scarlets (3.15pm).
A bizarre and wildly unpredictable group, and no two ways about it. Even the sole win by either of the big-spending French duo – Montpellier’s at home to Edinburgh – was decidedly fortunate.
Edinburgh’s performances (they sit fifth in the Pro14’s Conference B) and Richard Cockerill’s selections suggest they are peaking better for Europe. Similarly, Newcastle sit bottom of the Premiership, although they have won their past two matches at home to Bath and away to Nortampton.
But the French pair have no form to speak of. Montpellier’s third defeat in four Top 14 games last week at home to Clermont leaves them ninth domestically, and Toulon sit one place below them after a 22-3 win over lowly Grenoble. Their four wins in 13 matches this season have all been at home, and three have been against the Top 14’s bottom three clubs.
There’s liable to be a few more twists and turns in this pool yet.
Results so far: Montpellier 21 Edinburgh 15; Toulon 25 Newcastle 26; Edinburgh 40 Toulon 14; Newcastle 23 Montpellier 20.
Friday December 7th: Edinburgh v Newcastle (7.45pm).
Saturday December 8th: Toulon v Montpellier (3.15pm).
Sunday December 16th: Montpellier v Toulon (3.15pm); Newcastle v Edinburgh (3.15pm).
Saturday January 12th: Montpellier v Newcastle (1pm); Toulon v Edinburgh (5.30pm).
Friday January 19th: Newcastle v Toulon (7.45pm); Edinburgh v Montpellier (7.45pm).