With Saracens and Clermont home and hosed, and safely through to the knock-out stages, the next two weekends will decide who joins them but nothing is certain...
Before the 2017 Six Nations swings into full focus and dominates the rugby calendar for the months of February and March, there is the small matter of the final two rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup pool stage to deal with.
As Sir Alex Ferguson would say, it’s squeaky bum time in Europe’s premiere club tournament.
Some teams already have a foot in the quarter-finals and are, without taking anything for granted, looking to lock up home ties, whilst others enter these two weekends of rugby knowing that nothing other than two wins will be enough to see them into the knockout rounds.
Two of the eight berths have been all but locked up by Saracens and Clermont Auvergne already. The side from North London have won all four of their games so far and sit eight points above their closest rivals, Toulon, whilst Clermont’s three wins see them sit eight points above Bordeaux-Bègles and Ulster.
Both sides will be tested in their final two fixtures but, without wanting to play too recklessly, will have their minds set on ensuring as high a seeding as possible and booking their planned passage to the semi-finals via stops at Allianz Park and Stade Marcel-Michelin. It’s beyond these two clubs that things begin to get interesting.
Pool 1 has been a joy to watch this season with a rejuvenated Munster side and a Glasgow Warriors team finally translating their Guinness PRO12 ability to the European stage chief among the tournament’s highlights. Munster sit atop the group with 16 points – three points ahead of Glasgow – and have a trip to take on their PRO12 rival up first.
That game is – ahem – a ‘must-win’ for Glasgow who not only need to make up ground on Munster but also put themselves into the best possible position ahead of a final round encounter with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. Munster will welcome a largely second-string Racing 92 side to Thomond Park in that concluding round and face a much easier finale than Glasgow.
A win for Munster this weekend and not only will they have booked their quarter-final place but they’ll be on the cusp, barring a French revival of gargantuan proportion, of bringing knockout rugby back to the city of Limerick. Pencil Saturday’s clash at Scotstoun in your diary right now.
Moving on to Pool 2 and there is a three-horse race at the top with Wasps, Toulouse and Connacht all tied on 13 points. With Wasps and Connacht both to play Zebre over the final two weeks, both sides should take a full array of five points from the clash, leaving them on 18 overall and possibilities to both qualify, regardless of how their fixtures with Toulouse go.
Wasps welcome Toulouse to the Ricoh Arena this weekend, whilst Connacht must travel to the south of France in the final round, seemingly giving the advantage to the English side to finish top overall, with the PRO12 champions one of the more likely sides to book a best runners-up spot. Given the incorrect decision to allow Connacht to take a lineout at the end of their game with Wasps in Galway and produce a winning score, this might be the best and least controversial outcome within the pool.
Toulouse aren’t down and out, but they are down. Last season, 19 points were required by the best runners-up and it is looking like a similar number will be needed this season. A losing bonus point in Coventry followed by the best performance of their European campaign when Connacht come to town could be enough. History says not to rule out Toulouse, but their European form in recent years has been patchy at best.
In Pool 3, Saracens are flying high and Toulon’s campaign hangs by a thread, as they have just 10 points to show from their first four games. A bonus point win over Sale Sharks at the Stade Mayol this weekend would give them the belief needed, not to mention requisite points tally, before they head to Allianz Park to take on Saracens in the final round.
Realistically, even with a bonus point win over Sale, Toulon would probably still need to go to North London and win. As tempting as it may be for Saracens, who may well have a home quarter-final locked up by then, to rest players, it is simply not in that club’s DNA to give away any freebies. After an immensely successful period, Toulon could miss out on the knockout rounds for the first time in the last five years.
Leinster have reasserted their European credentials in Pool 4, sitting comfortably atop with 16 points, but do host the particularly un-French and effective on the road Montpellier on Friday night, before a trip to Castres to finish. A quarter-final spot is extremely likely but they aren’t quite the certainties to secure home-field advantage that Saracens and Clermont are.
Montpellier, on 11 points, are on the cusp of being among the best runners-up contenders, but the trip to Dublin will not make it an easy goal. They do host Northampton Saints in the final round and if Jake White’s men sense blood in the water – or a rested side – they could well be in a position to capitalise on it.
Clermont have Pool 5 all but wrapped up, leaving Bordeaux and Ulster, both on nine points, to scrap it out for second spot. Working in Ulster’s favour is that they host Bordeaux in the final round but for that game to mean anything to the side from Belfast, they will need to go to Exeter and beat the Chiefs on Sunday evening.
After their early season struggles, Exeter have bounced back and begun to find their groove over the last couple of months, but with Ulster’s European campaign on the line, it’s another tantalising fixture to circle on the calendar this weekend.
As stands, going into Round Five, Saracens, Clermont, Munster and Leinster would be the home quarter-finalists, with Wasps, Connacht, Toulouse and Glasgow wrapping up the final four spots.
With Wasps set to face Zebre and hosting Toulouse, they have a possible 10-point gain to make over the final two rounds, putting them in the mix for a home knockout fixture, whilst Toulouse’s remaining schedule of Wasps and Connacht could see them fall out of the mix for Montpellier, Toulon, Bordeaux or Ulster.
Glasgow are far from safe either, with Munster and Leicester still to play. In fact, Leicester, despite their humblings on the road to Glasgow and Munster, are still alive, but a very long shot. A Leicester win in Paris this weekend against a potentially disinterested Racing 92 could make for a winner-takes-all fixture with Glasgow at Welford Road in Round Six, but the men from the East Midlands would likely need bonus points in both wins to stand a chance.
Our advice? Reserve the sofa and television for the entirety of the next two weekends, but if you must insist on letting factors other than rugby enter your life, we’ve highlighted below the key fixtures to make sure you tune in to. All six should have strong bearings on which sides make the final eight.
Wasps vs Toulouse, 14/01/2017, 15:15
Glasgow Warriors vs Munster, 14/01/2017, 17:30
Exeter Chiefs vs Ulster, 15/01/2017, 17:30
Ulster vs Bordeaux-Bègles, 21/01/2017, 13:00
Saracens vs Toulon, 21/01/2017, 15:15
Toulouse vs Connacht, 22/01/2017, 16:15