The final round of European Rugby Champions Cup pool fixtures have arrived. As I post this article, that dance floor filler ‘Toca Me’ in the late 90’s has come into my head. The tune with the lyric ‘I need a miracle’ is apt for a couple of teams this weekend with slim chances of quarter final progression. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the pools as we stand and looks to identify the key fixtures to pay particular attention on.
Pool 1: Leinster Rugby through but can Saints join them?
Leinster Rugby have being the class act of this pool and some may argue the tournament so far. The Irish province secured their passage in round four but they shown no sign of letting up thumping 42 points past Lyon last weekend. A road trip to Benetton Rugby should see a professional efficient win to setup top seed in the quarter finals.
The question in this pool is whether Northampton Saints can join them in the last eight of this competition. The pool has been a mixed bag for the East Midlands outfit; exciting wins over Benetton Rugby and Lyon have provided a glorious opportunity for progression but they face a road trip to Lyon and here lies the issue for tournament organizers.
Lyon are out of the competition. The side selected looks competitive but are they really pushed to get a result here? I have my doubts as domestic league action is already in Lyon’s mindset. Northampton Saints need to be precise and efficient early to stamp their authority on the contest. If they do not, expect a very nervy contest.
Verdict: Leinster Rugby bonus point win. Northampton Saints do enough to secure a best runner up berth but it will be far from a classic.
Pool 2: Can Glasgow Warriors win at Sale Sharks?
Exeter Chiefs have being the dominant side in this pool. A home quarter final at fortress Sandy Park is in reach. A visit from La Rochelle awaits this weekend; a side who are well capable of executing an expansive game plan but focus is elsewhere. Exeter Chiefs pack and set piece are too strong for anyone in this pool, expect the bonus point to secure a top two seed in the quarter finals.
The burning question is whether Glasgow Warriors can deliver a bonus point try performance on the road against Sale Sharks. This is such a banana skin fixture for the Scottish side. All the pressure is on them. Sale Sharks can play with freedom and their attacking back line should be prominent.
Verdict: Exeter Chiefs to beat La Rochelle in a high scoring affair. Sale Sharks to make things interesting. Glasgow Warriors to win but no bonus point try win which could prove fatal to their quarter final hopes.
Pool 3: Can Ulster Rugby seal the deal?
Maybe I am being disingenuous here but surely ASM Clermont Auvergne are going to be focused and determined sufficiently to win at the Stoop. They are always an enigma away from road but the prize on offer is huge.
The main story here is Ulster Rugby. After a disappointing second half against ASM Clermont Auvergne last weekend, it is now to regroup and respond in the right manner. They entertain Bath Rugby with nothing to play for, no pressure and could be a problem if Ulster Rugby do not execute to a high standard.
Ulster Rugby progression this season hinges on this result. Failure to see out this fixture and all that promise and optimism goes out the window. The marquee players of Cooney, Coetzee, Henderson and McCloskey surely will come to the party but they need the line out to fire on all cylinders.
Verdict: The top two in this pool should win but suspect that Harlequins and Bath Rugby will ask a couple of interesting questions. ASM Clermont Auvergne to advance as pool winners but a road trip quarter final. Ulster Rugby to advance as a best runner up but it would all hinge on a closing moment of brilliance to secure a bonus point try from either at the death.
Pool 4: Miracles required for Munster Rugby
Munster Rugby’s fixture at Thomond Park is going to be surreal in the extreme. It promises to be a good contest against the Ospreys as the Welsh region have brought the likes of North, Jones, Tipuric in the travelling party.
The press conference sentiment has been on point from Munster Rugby players and management but it is time to put action into words. This is going to be a slog for Munster Rugby. Ospreys were competitive last weekend against Saracens; breakdown competitive with Tipuric.
Supporters may be forgiven for having an ear out on other results but the focal point is for Munster Rugby to produce and deliver a balanced performance which has being devoid so far in this pool campaign.
The significant game is at Allianz Park. Saracens host Racing 92. Saracens salary cap issues surfacing again last night. 2 million over budget. Player cull in the offing. Desperate times for players, staff and fans.
Racing 92 got the job done eventually last week against Munster Rugby. They will need to improve in their pack performance to have a chance of winning here.
Verdict: Saracens to beat Racing 92 in a defiant performance. A tasty last eight encounter against Exeter Chiefs / Leinster Rugby beckons but what squad is around in April is another question? Munster Rugby’s adventures in Europe are done and dusted.
Pool 5: Toulouse home and hosed but Gloucester Rugby?
Toulouse impressed me hugely last week in Galway. Their pack was excellent. Jerome Kaino is an absolute specimen. His leadership and work rate was exceptional and his pack colleagues followed after an early penalty try concession. Connacht Rugby swung the punches but Toulouse absorbed the attacking threat and won with fourteen points to spare.
This weekend sees a critical fixture for Gloucester Rugby. A trip to Toulouse is always difficult but they need to win to have a chance of progression. When in the groove, Gloucester Rugby provided huge issues for opposition but as seen at home to Toulouse, they can be wholly inconsistent in discipline and set piece.
The other fixture in this pool is a dead rubber. Both sides are out. Montpellier looking at domestic action and key fixtures in the coming weeks. Connacht Rugby just looking to get fit bodies back during the two week break after this fixture. Montpellier get the nod but it is of no significance.
Verdict: Toulouse to break Gloucester Rugby’s hearts. Toulouse to advance to the last eight but a potential heavyweight tussle against ASM Clermont Auvergne could be the reward.
Quarter Final Seeds:
- Leinster Rugby
- Exeter Chiefs
- Racing 92
- ASM Clermont
- Ulster Rugby
- Northampton Saints