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It’s all to play for as we head into the final round of pool matches in the Champions Cup this weekend, with all three Irish provinces having a great chance of progressing to the quarter-finals.
The Irish have acquitted themselves superbly in Europe this season. Indeed, with Connacht expected to progress from their Challenge Cup pool, there is a good chance that all four provinces will make it to the knock-out stages of European competition in the same season for the first time ever.
It’s quite a reflection on how the balance of power in Europe has shifted away from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 towards the PRO14 over the past few years - despite the massive difference in revenue between the leagues. The English sides, with the exception of Saracens, have been decidedly tepid in Europe’s top competition this season. After winning their last two games, Exeter are making a late run for a place in the quarter-finals, but it may well prove too little too late as they face a daunting trip to face Munster at Thomond Park (LIVE on BT Sport 2, Sat, Jan 19th 5.15pm) where nothing short of a bonus point win will keep them in the reckoning.
The same can be said for theTop1 4 challenge, with only Racing 92, Toulouse and Montpellier having any chance of being involved beyond the weekend. There has been much talk in the media of the resurgence of the French clubs this season. Unfortunately, that talk appears to have been premature. Only Racing 92, and perhaps Toulouse at an absolute push, have shown anything like the kind of power and craft required to win the tournament and, personally, I wouldn’t be putting any money on the latter.
Racing have recruited well , with both Simon Zebo and Finn Russell coming in, but it could well be that the age-old Achilles heel of Top 14 sides in Europe - inconsistent away form - will prove decisive once again if they don’t secure home draws in the quarter and semi-finals. That said, they are in pole position to do just that, so this could be their year.
However disappointing the Top 14 clubs have been, they have still managed to leave their Aviva Premiership counterparts well and truly in their wake. As it stands, Saracens are the only English side guaranteed to make the last eight. If that happens, it will be the second year running that only one Premiership club has made it through to the knock-out stages. Heading into the final round of pool games, English teams are bottom of three of the five pools. A very poor showing indeed! Gone are the days when a trip to the likes of Welford Road, Kingsholm, Franklin Gardens or The Rec was filled with a sense of foreboding.
PRO14 teams shine
There is no doubt that the PRO14 clubs have been the stars of the show so far. In addition to the three Irish sides, Glasgow and Edinburgh have performed admirably, with both sides now having a great chance of making it to the quarter-finals. Edinburgh are three points clear of Montpellier at the top of Pool 5, with the French side due at Murrayfield on Friday night for what promises to be a titanic encounter (LIVE on BT Sport 2, Fri, Jan 18th 7pm).
Glasgow face a daunting trip to Allianz Park to face Pool 3 leaders Saracens at lunchtime on Saturday (LIVE on BT Sport 2, Sat, Jan 19th 12.30pm), but even a losing bonus point should be enough to earn them a quarter-final berth.
Holders Leinster are looking good for a home quarter final as they head to Wasps in their final pool match (LIVE on BT Sport 3, Sun, Jan 20th 2.45pm). Their comprehensive 29-13 bonus point victory over main rivals Toulouse, despite missing at least four nailed-on starters, has given them control of Pool A heading into the weekend. They now lead the French side by three points which means that they will qualify as pool winners if they avoid defeat at the Ricoh Arena on Sunday. The only downside from the weekend was a knee injury to Luke McGrath which looks set to keep him out for at least six weeks and leaves both Leinster and Ireland short at scrum-half.
Munster are enjoying an excellent run of form and Johann van Graan’s men are now in pole position in Pool 2 following their 41-15 demolition of Gloucester at Kingsholm last weekend. They entertain a resurgent Exeter Chiefs at Thomond Park knowing that they just need to avoid defeat to book a home quarter-final. It might have seemed a bridge too far at the beginning of the season, but they are emerging as realistic contenders for the ultimate prize. The English side secured a bonus point victory over reigning Top 14 champions Castres last weekend which has given them a slim chance of qualification. However, Munster have been imperious at home this season and an upset is highly unlikely.
Dan McFarland’s Ulster have probably exceeded expectations this season and look set to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time in five years. It’s a remarkable achievement given the considerable turmoil surrounding the club over the past 18 months or so. Following a heroic 26-22 victory over pool leaders Racing 92 last weekend and back-to-back wins over Scarlets in December, Ulster travel to Leicester (LIVE on BT Sport 2, Sat, Jan 19th 3pm) knowing that a losing bonus point will be enough to see them through as Pool 4 runners-up behind Racing.
However, in the unlikely event that the French side lose at home to Scarlets (LIVE on BT Sport 3, Sat, Jan 19th 3pm) and fail to get anything more than a single point from the game, then a bonus point win at Welford Road would be enough to see Ulster go through as pool winners.
That said, it’s hard to see beyond the form book on any of these fixtures…..but you never know! We’ve already had a few surprises in the competition this season and who’s to say that we won’t see a few more this weekend.
You can watch ALL TEN Champions Cup round six pool games LIVE this weekend on the eir sport pack. eir sport is also the home of the PRO14 for the next three years with all 152 matches this season available on eir sport, including up to six LIVE matches every week.