European Rugby Preview: Race for the quarter-finals about to catch fire!
Premiership clubs could deny Munster and Leinster’s progress
Munster and Leinster are both facing ‘winner take all’ clashes with Saracens and Wasps respectively in the remaining rounds of this year’s inaugural European Champions Cup. Meanwhile an improving Connacht also host Exeter Chiefs in The Sportsground for a place in the quarter final of the European Challenge Cup on Saturday 17 January. But after a thrilling instalment of European Rugby Champions Cup Round 4 action, apart from Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne it’s anyone’s guess what teams will join the big three French rugby giants in the quarter-finals.
In a heavyweight Pool 1, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Saracens and Munster Rugby are all still right in the hunt for qualification with the key game in Allianz Park this Saturday January 17 between Munster and Saracens. Coming off the back of a surprise defeat in Galway to Connacht the pressure is really on Anthony Foley’s men to deliver yet another famous victory against the odds in the north London midday kick-off.
Pool 2 also sees Harlequins, Leinster Rugby and Wasps having a place in the knockout stage very much in their sights. Leinster, who entertain Castres in Round 5 may also need a victory in Wasps in the concluding round at their new home in Coventry in order to progress. Wasps signed off at Adams Park before their permanent move to the Ricoh Arena by putting Castres to the sword.
Pool 3 no longer has any Irish interest after Ulster’s elimination where there might be daylight between RC Toulon and the chasing pack by the end of Round 6. Toulon are now favourites to top Pool 3, and while Scarlets and Leicester Tigers will have their work cut out to overtake the reigning champions, both clubs will be at least be eyeing one of the three best runner-up spots which are now available under the new qualification format.
Toulouse also have something of a cushion at the top of Pool 4, but elsewhere, the race for the Champions Cup quarter-finals looks set to boil over in Rounds 5 and 6. Glasgow Warriors and Bath Rugby who trail Toulouse by six points in Pool 4 have some ground to make up. The four-time champions are the only club with four wins to date (Racing are also unbeaten with three wins and a draw) and while they will no doubt be hell-bent on topping the pool, they might be aware of the haunting fact that no club which has reached the quarter-finals with six victories has ever gone on to be crowned kings of Europe in the same season.
The fight for a place in the last eight from Pool 5 also spills over into the final rounds as Northampton Saints, Racing Metro 92 and Ospreys are all still in contention.
European Challenge Cup – Only two clubs left unbeaten as pressure intensifies
Connacht and London Irish both have a realistic opportunity of making the quarter-final stage.
The Exiles will be vying for a place with Cardiff Blues while a home victory over Exeter Chiefs will guarantee a quarter-final place for Pat Lam’s in-form Connacht team.
Not surprisingly, the back-to-back fixtures took their toll and as the European Rugby Challenge Cup takes a short time-out, only Edinburgh Rugby and Gloucester Rugby will be carrying unbeaten records into the decisive January rounds.
Pool 4 leaders, Edinburgh, as well as Gloucester who have a seven-point cushion in Pool 5, are now strongly placed to reach the knockout stage, but under EPCR’s revised format which sees five pool winners and three runners-up booking their spots in the quarter-finals, at least 13 of the 20 competing clubs remain in the qualification hunt.
Cardiff Blues, currently slugging it out at the top of Pool 1 with London Irish, lost their unbeaten record to the Exiles who emerged 34-23 winners at the Madejski Stadium where Andrew Fenby scored two tries and Tom Homer kicked 19 points.
In Pool 2, Connacht Rugby set up a likely qualification showdown with Exeter Chiefs at the Sportsground next month when they came away from Stade Jean Dauger with a dramatic 29-27 victory over Bayonne.
Scrum half, Caolin Blade, scored two tries on his first start for the Irish province while out half and captain, Mia Nikora, converted both and added five penalties. Bayonne centre, Matthieu Ugalde, had a chance to snatch the game for Bayonne at the death, but his penalty attempt drifted wide and Connacht were able to celebrate a famous win.
Exeter, meanwhile, are two points clear at the top of the pool following their impressive 41-17 success against La Rochelle at Sandy Park. It’s even tighter in the Pool 3 qualification stakes where Newport Gwent Dragons, Newcastle Falcons and Stade Francais Paris are battling it out.
Dragons lead the way on 16 points on the back of a comfortable win over Bucharest Wolves at Rodney Parade, while Newcastle are just one point adrift despite losing 31-24 to Stade in Paris. Stade are very much in contention and even if the Round 5 clash of Newcastle and the Dragons at Kingston Park has the makings of a pool decider, the two-time tournament finalists could still have a say in the outcome with matches to come against Bucharest and the Dragons.
Edinburgh are out in front in Pool 4 following their 24-6 win at London Welsh, but both Bordeaux-Begles and Lyon remain in contention. Edinburgh travel to Lyon, who defeated Bordeaux 37-28, in Round 5 and then have Bordeaux at home in Round 6, so they still have their work cut out to reach the last eight.
Gloucester are in control of Pool 5 thanks to a bonus-point victory over Zebre in Parma, while Oyonnax, 22-17 winners against Top 14 opponents Brive, look to be chasing one of those three best runners-up spots.