It’s looking like two in and two out for the Irish provinces as we look ahead to the final round of pool games in the Champions Cup this weekend.
There weren’t too many surprises in the penultimate round of pool matches last weekend. It was do or die for Connacht and Munster against tough opposition in Toulouse and Racing 92 respectively but, unfortunately, both sides came up short.
Ulster spurned a good opportunity to at least run Clermont close on their own patch and must now beat Bath at the Kingspan in their final game this weekend to guarantee their progress, while all-conquering Leinster stretched their unbeaten run to 15 games this season as they maintained their push for top seeding by putting Lyon to the sword at the RDS.
Connacht were soundly beaten 21-7 by Toulouse as the four-time champions showed their mettle at a wet and rainy Sportsground. They travel to Montpellier for their final pool game on Sunday with nothing but pride at stake for either team.
There’s something of a mini-crisis going on west of the Shannon right now. A combination of poor form and a long injury list has left their season at a crossroads. They have a couple of weeks to regroup and then it’s back to the PRO14 where they will need to lift themselves if they are to make the play-offs. They will also be keen to qualify for the Champions Cup for next season after missing out for the past two years.
Munster’s hopes of making the last eight are hanging by a thread following their 39-22 defeat to Racing 92 in Paris on Sunday. It was one of their best performances of the season, but it wasn’t enough against a very strong Racing side who are serious contenders for the tournament. They led going into the final quarter, but faded badly as the hosts ran in three tries to seal a bonus point victory and ensure that the visitors left with nothing.
There have been plenty of post mortems already about Munster’s progress this season and this isn’t going to be another one. Head coach Johann van Graan is under pressure and, with the run of results they’ve had over the past month, it’s no surprise.
Like Connacht, they too have been blighted by injuries to key players, most notably Joey Carbery, Tadgh Beirne, Tommy O’Donnell and Tyler Bleyendaal. However, saving their performance against Ulster and one or two other exceptions, they have looked like a far better side than they did last season. It was unfortunate that they were drawn in the ‘Pool of Death’ in the Champions Cup, but perhaps that’s a measure of the progress they still need to make if they are to be the force in Europe that they once were.
Last weekend’s defeat means that they need a lot of results to go their way this weekend if they are to qualify for the quarter-finals. In addition to securing a bonus point victory over Ospreys at Thomond Park, they also need already-qualified Racing to beat Saracens at Allianz Park. That’s a big ask all by itself.
However, it doesn’t stop there. They need a couple of other favours too – namely that at least two out of Northampton, Gloucester or Glasgow lose as well. It could actually happen as all three sides are away from home as Northampton travel to Lyon, Gloucester go to Toulouse and Glasgow head to Sale.
Stranger things have happened, but anyone fancying a punt would be wiser to keep their money in their pocket…....
Ulster will secure their progress if they beat Bath at the Kingspan on Saturday. The Aviva Premiership side have lost all five of their games in the competition this season, so anything other than a victory for the home side would be a major surprise.
However, they could still finish top of Pool 3 and secure a home quarter-final if they take five points from the Ospreys game and Clermont lose to Harlequins at The Stoop. Harlequins have nothing to play for and Clermont travel better than most French teams, so that combination will most probably ensure that Clermont top the pool and leave Ulster facing an away tie in the quarter-finals.
All will be revealed on Saturday afternoon.
It’s been a dream season thus far for Leinster who remain unbeaten so far in all competitions in the current campaign. Their performance against Lyon was a little uneven last weekend by their own high standards, but they still managed to run in six tries against a team that is currently second in the Top 14.
They travel to Treviso to take on Benetton in their final pool game knowing that any sort of victory would be enough to seal top seeding and with it a home quarter and semi-final spot. It would be just reward for the rugby they have played all season as they look to add a record fifth star to the shirt.
By Kieran O’Daly
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