Rugby - Champions Cup Final Round – The State of Play
Rugby: Where are we at in the Champions Cup?
As we enter the final round of fixtures in the Champions Cup I'll be investigating the state of play across the pools and find out who’s most likely to emerge from their respective groups and push forward in their quest for European glory.
Something to note on the competitions format, the 5 pool winners plus the 3 best runners up will qualify for the quarter finals.
Leinster lead the way in pool 1 (unsurprisingly) and the reigning champions only look like they’re getting stronger. Rumbling past a rejuvenated Toulouse side last week, in what was a hard-fought close game for long periods has left them in pole position. Beating a disappointing Wasps side whos turgid campaign has left them registering 0 wins and just 1 measly draw from 5 games stands in Leinster’s way of a home quarter final in the Aviva where they are undefeated this season.
Toulouse can take some solace in making the defending champs sweat for much of the game last week and a victory in the Stade Ernest Wallon against Bath will almost certainly see them qualify for the last 8 as one of the best second place teams, where it is not impossible that they could be travelling to Dublin once more. Both Leinster and Toulouse hold the record for most European Cups jointly (4 wins each) and they will both harbour serious ambitions of holding that record outright by the end of this season.
The Exeter chiefs face the unenviable task of going to Thomond park for a must win game (whilst also needing to deny Munster a losing bonus point) against a red-hot Munster side whos recent results include dispatching of Gloucester away from home 41-17 and handing Leinster just their third defeat all season.
Having started their campaign with 2 losses and a draw, Exeter fans must still be delighted to still be in with a chance even travelling to one of the most formidable fortresses in European Rugby. Considering the positions of the other pools, whoever does finish up in 2nd position will almost certainly not qualify for the last 8 and thus the tension surrounding this game is ramped up.
An Anglo-Irish derby to look forward to. The other game in this group sees Gloucester travel to Castres in a futile game to complete a pool rightly dubbed the ‘pool of death’ pre-tournament.
Pool 3 has been a tale of stark contrast between the 2 teams leading the way and the 2...err not leading the way.
Lyon languish at the bottom of this pool having failed to pick up a solitary point, a feat that is really somewhat impressive and they will go down as one of the worst sides to ever compete in the Champions cup. Scarlets sit just above them with 5 points which would have them bottom of every other group bar pool 1 where Wasps gained just 4 points.
Saracens have brushed all opponents aside with relative ease winning 5 from 5 and are the only undefeated side left in the competition. Despite this they are still not guaranteed to top the pool as the highly impressive Scots, Glasgow Warriors sit just 4 points behind Sarries ahead of their battle this weekend. The Warriors face the uphill task of having to win at Allianz Park but cannot be written off in what is one of the most exciting match-ups this weekend.
Last year’s runners up Racing 92 lead the way in this pool and will be looking to secure a home quarter final this weekend when they host the Scarlets knowing victory will see them playing in Paris in the next round.
Last week’s defeat in Ulster is the sole blemish on their record, but even following that titanic tussle they are still 3 points clear of the Ulster-men. In the Scarlets they face a side who haven’t quite lived up to expectations this season but still have the quality to upset the Parisians should there be any hint of complacency in the Racing side.
In the other game in this pool Ulster travel to Welford road to take on Leicester. Battling for one of the best ‘second place’ quarter final spots (whilst simultaneously hoping Scarlets do them a favour) Ulster face a win or go home match. In the reverse fixture in round one the Tigers were beaten 24-10 but expect this game to be closer as Leicester have a very proud home record in Europe which they will be looking to improve.
As unpredictable a pool as there has ever been in the champions cup, pool 5 was meant to be a battle between the two French giants who would wrestle for top spot. Instead after 3 rounds Toulon and Montpellier found themselves as the bottom 2 having only registered 1 win each.
Credit must go to Newcastle and especially Edinburgh for defying expectations. The Scots sit atop the tree entering the final round of fixtures and play host to Montpellier who have recovered from their indifferent start to lie just 3 points behind in 2nd place.
Expect a dogfight at Murrayfield on Friday night as both sides fight for their champions cup survival. Since Montpellier have rediscovered their form of late, I can only see this one going down to the wire. Should Edinburgh lose they could still qualify as a best runner-up pending on results elsewhere.
The final game of this group see Newcastle entertain Toulon in a dead rubber. Toulon flattered to deceive for much of this campaign and despite the level of talent in their ranks could find themselves finishing bottom of Pool 5.