There’s never been a final round like it, with seven quarter-final spots still up for grabs this weekend. But who will be quaffing champagne and who will be crying into their beer? Here’s how we see it panning out…
SOMETIMES THE stars align and you have a perfect rugby heaven. For TV viewers this weekend’s European Champions Cup fare is pure nectar, with BT Sport able to broadcast three head-to-head shootouts that will determine the pool winners.
Yet the Wasps–Leinster, Northampton Saints–Racing Métro and Clermont–Saracens ties are just the tip of the iceberg, because there are tasty match-ups everywhere you look as the group stage heads towards a delicious denouement.
The new format has produced the tightest pool stage ever, and it’s no coincidence because there are now fewer teams (20) and fewer pools (five) but crucially three successful runners-up spots instead of two.
This has kept teams in contention for longer and for the first time only one team, Toulon, has booked their quarter-final place coming into the last round. Bath and Wasps stand on the threshold of qualifying despite losing their first two games – something that has never happened – and the pervading ‘go for broke’ approach as teams chase vital bonus points has contributed to average hauls of 4.3 tries and 41 points a game.
It’s all rather marvellous and the only fly in the ointment is the Italian team (Treviso), whose presence you feel is necessary but who nevertheless distort the competition because it makes two qualifiers from their pool almost inevitable.
It’s all a far cry from 20 years ago when only 12 teams took part in the inaugural tournament, the Heineken Cup, and attendances of 3,000 were the norm.
“It’s a shame the English clubs weren’t in it the first year, because it would have got off to an even better start and given it a higher profile,” says Mike Rayer, Bedford’s director of rugby who played for Cardiff in that first tournament.
“Today the Champions Cup is a fantastic product and it’s not just one group of death now but several. It gets a lot of saturation and you don’t which games to watch. Clermont-Saracens will be a defining game this weekend but it’s hard to look beyond Toulon to win it given the players they have at their disposal.”
In 1995-96, Rayer’s Cardiff side played only two games – a draw at Bordeaux-Begles and win over Ulster – to reach the semi-finals, where they beat Leinster in the freezing Dublin sleet.
“That would be unheard of now,” he says. “In the final, in Cardiff, Toulouse were far better than us. They had a stellar back-line with Carbonneau and Castaignede and Deylaud. They ran rings round us to be honest, but our pack was magnificent and Adrian Davies (six penalties) kept us in the game.”
Toulouse won it in extra time that year and two decades on they find themselves on tenterhooks, despite having gone into last weekend with the only 100% pool record. That’s because they have no bonus points and the same concern applies to Saracens, who’ve gleaned only one bonus point from a group whose weakest link is a very strong Sale side – the Sharks will probably lose this weekend and go down as the best team ever to lose all six pool games.
It may well be that 19 points are needed to get through as a runner-up and already two teams in the Italian pool, Northampton and Racing, have that number. So in effect everyone else is playing for two runners-up spots – and it’s here that it gets difficult.
The only teams I’d predict with certainty to join Toulon in the last eight are Northampton and Bath, one and two in the Aviva Premiership.
Northampton’s suffocation of the Ospreys, ending the Welsh region’s unbeaten record at the Liberty Stadium this season, was extremely impressive. Even without the luckless Ben Foden, expect them to dispatch Racing convincingly and finish as top seeds.
Bath, who made 536 metres in their thrilling four-try panning of Toulouse, should also swell the English ranks. Their game with Glasgow Warriors threatens to be the highlight of round six, although only if Glasgow raise the bar considerably after their poor display against Montpellier. Should Toulouse squeeze home at Montpellier, Bath would claim a runners-up spot.
Rumble at the Ricoh
What of the other pool deciders? Clermont’s imperious form at Stade Marcel Michelin, where they haven’t lost in Europe for over six years, means Saracens will have to produce the performance of their lives to win – better even than the one that did for Clermont at Twickenham last April.
Wasps seem to have progressed from decent to deadly in a very short space of time. Yet how much will the physical effort at Harlequins, where they made 199 tackles, have taken out of them? Leinster breezed home against Castres and will be fresher, and I take them to edge it at a buzzing Ricoh Arena. If I’m right, Wasps would go out, because 16 or 17 points won’t be enough.
So my pool winners are Clermont, Leinster, Toulon, Toulouse and Northampton, with Bath and Racing also going through.
That leaves a three-way tussle between three English sides, Leicester Tigers, Harlequins and Saracens, for the final spot. Leicester need a full five points in Belfast and, even allowing for Ulster’s injuries, with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding joining the casualty list in Toulon, that looks beyond the Tigers.
Quins, should they recover mentally from what Conor O’Shea called the “bitter blow” of their sucker-punch loss to Wasps, may well do a job on Castres and reach 18 points. But a losing bonus point for Saracens would give them 18 points too and, as things stand, they have a 28-point head start in the points difference column.
It’s at this point that it’s best to put the crystal ball away, particularly as a Wasps and/or Saracens win brings new elements into the equation. Just take it as read that it’s going to be one hell of a weekend.
Possible quarter-final line-up: Northampton v Saracens, Toulon v Racing, Clermont v Bath, Leinster v Toulouse.
Champions Cup round six fixtures:
Saturday: P2: Wasps v Leinster, Castres v Harlequins (both 1pm GMT). P5: Northampton v Racing Metro, Treviso v Ospreys (both 3.15pm). P3: Scarlets v Toulon, Ulster v Leicester (both 5.30pm).
Sunday: P4: Bath v Glasgow, Montpellier v Toulouse (both 1pm). P1: Munster v Sale, Clermont v Saracens (both 3.15pm).