Adam Hathaway takes a look into his crystal ball and tries to predict who will make it to the last eight of the European Champions Cup.
Three down and five to go in the Champions Cup, as we head into the last weekend of pool games with Saracens, Leicester Tigers and Racing 92 all having a cigar on already, after securing home quarter-finals with five rounds of matches gone.
The bookies have Saracens and Dan Carter’s Racing vying for favouritism with Toulon just behind them, but I wonder what the odds-makers would have been quoting if the rugby gods had smiled on Wasps in France on Sunday. And who will be joining the three already there when the dust settles on Sunday evening?
A tip of the hat to the organisers as well, whose decision to reduce the number of pools to five last season, from six, has paid off. Too often in recent years the last weekend of the group stages has had a bit of a lame duck look to it. Not this time though.
After looking at the weekend’s fixtures, chucking a few bits of paper in the air and dusting off the crystal ball it looks like the Aviva Premiership will have four representatives in the last eight, with three from the Top 14 and one from Wales. Ulster need a hefty win against Oyonnax in Pool One to have a chance of making it.
So with the tin hat on, here are the five which could complete the quarter-final line-up: Toulon, Wasps, Clermont Auvergne, Northampton and Ospreys.
You would have to have had a heart of stone, or be a Leicester fan, not to have some sympathy with Wasps after what they went through on Sunday in France. Missing a couple of their biggest guns, they were leading Toulon 11-8 going into the 81st minute and on course for their biggest win in Europe since Lawrence Dallaglio and co were on the firm. With nearly everyone in their backline playing out of position, and Joe Simpson making his one mistake of a brilliant afternoon, which made you ponder how there can be two better scrum-halves in England, they let in Drew Mitchell for the game-winning try – but they live to fight another day in Pool Five.
Losing bonus points don’t grow on trees on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt next to Toulon’s Stade Mayol and with a home game to come this Saturday against a Leinster team who are already out, Wasps will fancy their chances of claiming a spot in the last eight and they will have Joe Launchbury and James Haskell back in the fold.
Amazingly, it looks like two teams could get out of Pool Five – and you could have got long odds on that at the start. Toulon head to Bath and should get enough. They have had their lucky escape this year already and will not be in the mood to leave anything to chance. This was the proverbial pool of death when it was drawn, with four former champions in it, but Wasps put the cat among the pigeons with their home win demolition of Toulon and their victory in Dublin.
Exeter Chiefs must be kicking themselves though. They spent the aftermath of their 34-27 defeat to Bordeaux-Begles in Pool Two saying they did not regret picking an almost second-string side but if they had known Ospreys would beat Clermont on Friday they surely would have gone to France fully loaded. As it is, it looks like they are out and Ospreys will be desperate to confirm that by beating the English side on Sunday and make sure their epic win in the previous round is not wasted. However, all four teams in Pool Two have a mathematical chance of getting through.
Northampton Saints should get what they need at Scarlets on Saturday to claim the Pool Three runners-up spot and go through, but after narrowly squeaking through at home against Glasgow Warriors, thanks to Harry Mallinder’s late score, they don’t look candidates to go any further than the last eight.
So the order of the quarter-finals could look something like this. Saracens v Northampton, Racing v Wasps, Leicester v Ospreys and Toulon v Clermont. But if Toulon don’t get a big enough win against Bath, Ulster wallop Oyonnax and Exeter withstand Alun Wyn Jones and his pals in the west country on Sunday, it will all look very different and I will be running for cover.