Intriguing finale as 14 teams vie for Champions Cup last-eight

Munster and Ulster seeking to join tournament favourites Leinster in quarter-finals

Peter O’Mahony: “We’ve got to go and win at the weekend and it’s going to be massively difficult because they’re  such a good side.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Peter O’Mahony: “We’ve got to go and win at the weekend and it’s going to be massively difficult because they’re such a good side.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

There’s never been a European Champions Cup pool finale quite like it, not even in the competition’s Heineken Cup guise.

All told, 50 matches have been played and yet only one team, Leinster, are through to the quarter-finals, with another 14 teams still in contention mathematically. With five points covering the top three in the other four pools, it promises to be complicated, and thrilling.

Munster and Ulster have taken it down to the wire, with Munster in familiar, last-chance-saloon, must-win territory against Castres at 1pm in Thomond Park tomorrow (live on Sky Sports), and soon after Ulster, similarly, follow suit against Wasps at 3.15pm in the Ricoh Arena (live on BT Sport).

Throw in Connacht’s European Challenge Cup campaign into the mix, and the four proud provinces have played 20 matches, winning 16, drawing two and losing just two. Another clean sweep would do nicely, ensuring all four would progress to the knock-out stages for the first time ever, with the prospect of two, three or ever four home quarter-finals at the end of March.

Already assured of a home quarter-final as the only unbeaten side in the competition, Leinster set the ball rolling in the Altrad Stadium in Montpellier at 1pm Irish time today (on Sky Sports) needing only a bonus point to secure top seeding and with it an enhanced chance of a home semi-final as well. They’ll also be mindful of the draw at this stage last year away to Castres which effectively condemned them to an away semi-final against Clermont.

The Leinster think tank have made six changes to the starting XV from last weekend against Glasgow Warriors while Joey Carbery, absent since November, returns to the bench.

Rob Kearney returns at full-back, with Jordan Larmour switching to the right wing, while Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne form a new half-back partnership. Leo Cullen maintained that Johnny Sexton was fit and available for selection but wasn’t asked to make the trip to France. Cian Healy, James Ryan and Dan Leavy all return to the pack.

Montpellier go into the game with faint hopes of advancing, with the recall of Ruan Pienaar one of five changes to what looks a first-choice selection. But an Exeter win in Glasgow at the same time would extinguish them already, although Glasgow have picked a strong side, and failure by Exeter to do so does raise the possibility of no English side appearing in the knock-out stages for the first time ever when they’ve taken part in the competition.

Connacht, already through to the last eight of the European Challenge Cup, can secure a home quarter-final by beating Oyannax at a packed Sportsground (kick-off 2.30) today. Matt Healy, who has scored seven of his tries this season in Europe, returns to win his 100th cap for the province, while the only other change sees Naulia Dawai picked in the back-row.

Bonus point

In this afternoon’s Champions Cup finale in Pool Two, Clermont host the Ospreys in a shoot-out for first place at the Stade Marcel Michelin while the back-to-back champions, Saracens, most probably need and should acquire a bonus point win at home to Northampton (whom they have beaten 55-24 and 57-13 this season) to retain any hopes of advancing. But if La Rochelle, Exeter and the Scarlets all win, it won’t be enough.

The Scarlets host Toulon in a Pool Five shoot-out at 5.30pm at Parc Y Scarlets, where a failure to register at least a bonus point could also see Saracens’ three-in-a-row predecessors as champions be eliminated.

Cue Munster and despite the Sunday brunchtime kick-off, home team and home crowd alike should be in full metal jacket mode. Encouragingly, Peter O’Mahony has been passed fit in an unchanged side as Munster brace themselves for yet another win-or-bust, last day finale in January.

“There’s been so many of them,” admits O’Mahony. “We don’t like to do things in any way handy. Every time you get out of your pool in Europe it’s a huge feat. It’s a massive competition and the games are getting so big and the teams, the quality is incredible. The fact that we’ve put ourselves in the position to be in with a shout, it’s in our hands now to go to another quarter-final, it’s something that we’re proud of.”

Besides, if someone had given Munster this scenario last October, they’d have taken it.

“Yes, of course you would. You’ve an opportunity to go to another quarter-final. We’ve got to go and win at the weekend and it’s going to be massively difficult because they’re such a good side but you’d bite someone’s hand off for it.”

As things stand, Wasps can overtake Ulster in Pool One with a bonus point win, and that could top the group were La Rochelle to lose at home to Harlequins or, altogether more likely, elevate them to second place on 17 points. That might be enough to qualify, although come kick-off, a win for Exeter away to Glasgow and bonus point wins for Saracens at home to Northampton and Bath away to Benetton would make 17 points insufficient to qualify.

Wasps’ team selection suggests they are clinging to that hope, while Ulster, who have recalled Darren Cave, Kieran Treadwell and Kyle McCall, have been notoriously inconsistent this season, and have largely failed to deliver away from home. But the win in Harlequins was an exception, and come kick-off, their need should be way more acute.

Bearing all this in mind, the quarter-finals could look something like this: Leinster v Exeter, Clermont v Racing, Ulster v La Rochelle, Scarlets v Munster.

Then again, they probably won’t look anything like that at all.

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