The fifth round of Heineken Champions Cup is now in the books. Several sides’ ambitions to advance to the playoffs officially extinguished while others move onto next weekend and a weekend of destiny. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the permutations which may unfold next weekend.
Home Quarter Final Locks
The debate on home quarter final berths was decisively answered this weekend. Saracens remain unbeaten in pool phase play. Their bonus point try win over Lyon on the road means that they are the number one seed right now with a home fixture against Glasgow Warriors scheduled next weekend.
Racing 92’s two point haul on the road to Ulster Rugby yesterday means that they hold the second seed. Racing 92 will fancy their chances of securing a win over a Scarlets side at home with precious little to play for; a potential bonus point up for the grabs.
Leinster Rugby made an emphatic statement, demolishing Toulouse minus several marquee first team starters. Wasps on the road will be interesting but the manner of the performance yesterday in the RDS means that the reigning champions should secure the third quarter final berth.
Any dramatic twists expected on the home quarter final berth?
We are down to the last home quarter final berth and it could be decided as soon as Friday night at 10pm. The equation is simple. If Edinburgh Rugby beat Montpellier, they secure the final home quarter final spot with a minimum of 23 points. A Montpellier game opens the home quarter final berth up for grabs on Saturday!
The side who would avail of this scenario is Munster Rugby but they are faced with a tricky encounter at Thomond Park as Exeter Chiefs still have a chance of pool progression. Exeter Chiefs’ mission is simple; beat Munster Rugby without allowing the Irish province any points. Tough task but no better than Exeter Chiefs to embrace and go for broke.
Munster Rugby impressive in their win over Gloucester Rugby on Friday night need to secure a bonus point try win to hit the twenty-two points mark. This may still not be good enough to secure the home quarter final berth but that is the aim right now. The Battle of Castres and the lack of officiating on that December night may come back to haunt Munster Rugby, Wayne Barnes and the EPCR organization. A home quarter final dashed.
Last Three Spots:
The pressure may build for those currently in spots six, seven and eight spots if Montpellier were to upset Edinburgh Rugby on the road. Given Montpellier’s road trip woes, it looks an arduous task but let us look at the impact if the French side did pull off the upset win.
Montpellier would jump to min (20 points) / max (21 points) and win Pool 5. Edinburgh Rugby are currently on nineteen points at present and you would expect them to add to that tally. They should advance to the quarter finals. Who may need be vulnerable if this scenario plays out?
Ulster Rugby travel to a Leicester Tigers who are devoid of confidence. It is the best opportunity for Ulster Rugby to secure a road trip win at Welford Road and with a Tigers squad looking at Gallagher Premiership survival, a bonus point try is potentially on the cards. Ulster Rugby should be safe.
Glasgow Warriors head to Saracens; arduous mission to secure any points from this fixture. Glasgow Warriors do have nineteen points in the bag; that might be enough to secure a ticket for the big dance but it all depends on Edinburgh / Montpellier on Friday.
Round Four is now in the books. A round where a number of teams ambitions in this competition were extinguished. It also saw a number of teams deliver standout performances to make them favorites to win this competition. Hawkeye Sidekick delves into permutations created after this weekend.
Who looks primed for qualification?
This past weekend saw Racing 92 produce an impressive bonus point win over a hapless Leicester Tigers side on the road. It looks on odds on that Racing 92 will be one of the top seeds and a home quarter final berth.
Saracens are also in range to secure the top seed as well. Their victory on the road to Cardiff Blues was typical Saracens; absorbed Cardiff Blues best attacking moves and executed efficiently in the second half to secure a vital win. With Glasgow Warriors due to visit in January, the London club will look to set down another keynote marker.
Toulouse and Leinster Rugby look odds on to advance from Pool 1. The key question is which side wins the pool and potentially a home quarter final berth. The January fixture between both teams will be epic and will go a long way in effecting the playoff chances of others.
Edinburgh Rugby took a massive step to secure Pool 5 with a commanding win on the road against Newcastle Falcons. Blair Kinghorn impressed at full back. Edinburgh with a home game against Montpellier and a road trip to already eliminated RC Toulon could see the Scottish side look to secure a home quarter final berth.
Who is on the cusp of the playoffs?
It is very much all to play for in Pool 2. Munster Rugby’s loss to Castres on the road has opened the pool wide open again. It looks like only one team from this pool will advance to the quarter final stage. Key fixtures in January to determine the winner.
Ulster Rugby have had a splendid December. Their ten point haul against Scarlets has seen Dan McFarland’s charges move to fourteen points; another win should secure playoff rugby into next Spring.
Glasgow Warriors continue to battle gamely to topple Saracens; another key note win against Lyon has the Scottish side well set to advance to the last eight. Saracens away will be tough, interesting to see how they will perform. Realistically, it is a best runner up spot.
Disappointments of the round
Leicester Tigers are heading into the abyss. Their unstructured defensive performance in the opening period was duly punished by Racing 92. The side are bereft of confidence and are realistically staring down the barrel of relegation. A club in complete and utter crisis.
Scarlets transformation from European Cup contenders to European Cup whipping boys in one season is a shock. There were personnel departures but the squad depth in the camp should have seen Wayne Pivac’s charges impress better than this. The side will thread water until the end of the pool phase.
RC Toulon. Money does not bring you happiness. The club have announced key signings next season but the club are struggling all ends up this season. No long term plan; no distinct avenue for Toulon youngsters to get into the first team. A mercenary club.
If the pool phase was completed this weekend, the following fixtures would be scheduled:
The decisive round four of the Heineken Champions Cup; a round where several teams will fall by the wayside with a key loss. Other sides will take advantage of sides who are already out the back door due to results last weekend.
The wannabes will be whittled down by the end of this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick provides his verdict on the fixtures scheduled. Gloucester Rugby and a bonus point try win (15 point spread) against a massively under-strength Exeter Chiefs outfit looks to too good to refuse.
Perhaps a little early to be posting this overall ranking standings table but it just shows how much rugby is still left to be played and how a result here or there could affect the playoff berths.
If the tournament pool stages concluded this weekend, the following quarter finals would be:
Saracens vs. Ulster Rugby
Racing 92 vs. Glasgow Warriors
Toulouse vs. Leinster Rugby
Munster Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby
There will be twists and turns in the pool stages but it looks clear that Saracens and Racing 92 will be vying it out for the top seed given their remaining schedules. Either way, the first and second seed even at this early stage looks already locked down given the remaining schedules of these teams.
After that, it becomes muddied. Toulouse secured a vital road trip win to Wasps who are as good as out of the contest. The key contest now for Toulouse in the pool is their road trip fixture to Leinster Rugby; a potential winner getting a home quarter final up for grabs. Bath Rugby and Wasps could be vulnerable to a couple of hidings before the end of this pool phase.
Munster Rugby have an arduous series of road trip fixtures. An away assignment to Castres who always give teams a torrid time and then a trip to Kingsholm to meet a Gloucester Rugby full of confidence after taking the scalp of Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. Pool 2 has twists and turns to go yet before the weekend of January 19th.
Saracens in particular have shown the defensive organization and attacking guile in their pool phase. Cardiff Blues and Lyon look detached already so potential bonus points on offer for both Saracens and Glasgow Warriors who should secure a best runner up berth.
Racing 92’s offloading game at home particularly has being a joy to watch. Ulster Rugby’s win at Scarlets give the Irish province a chance to secure a best runner up berth and they may need to beat Racing 92 at Kingspan Stadium to secure playoff rugby next April. Scarlets are out, disappointing campaign and Leicester Tigers could join them if they do not beat Racing 92 next weekend.
Edinburgh Rugby hold sway in the Pool 5 standings but do have a road trip to RC Toulon who will be keen to avenge a massive loss to the Scottish club in round two. Montpellier are as good as out so Newcastle Falcons may have a potential chance of securing a best runner up berth. All to play for in this pool.
Munster Rugby are three points clear in Pool 2 after a three try second half performance over a hard working but limited Castres outfit at Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick was at the Limerick venue and provides his thoughts on proceedings.
Late scratches force Munster into squad reshuffle
The day started with excitement and optimism for Munster Rugby supporters heading to Thomond Park for this European Cup fixture; a fixture to see the debut of Conor Murray and Joey Carbery half-back partnership as well as Chris Farrell who was in superb form last weekend.
As the fans started to arrive to the hallowed rugby venue, it soon emerged that Carbery would play no part in the contest (hamstring) and after a lengthy consultation with medical staff during team warm ups, Chris Farrell was also forced to sit this fixture out.
Two key personnel withdrawals for the Irish province but in JJ Hanrahan and Sam Arnold, the side still look loaded with talent and creativity to execute an efficient attacking game plan. Tyler Bleyendaal and Jaco Taute were called into the match day squad and the training drills pregame were executed in a heavy torrential downpour, the visibility reducing with each passing minute.
Tricky weather conditions leads to unforced errors
The windy conditions were extremely tricky for both sides. The opening exchanges typified with the visitors unable to deal with Murray’s first three box kicks given the cross field breeze at play.
Munster Rugby as well were struggling with the conditions as well as Mike Haley kicked out in the full early doors. The game looked for all intensive purposes to be a pack arm wrestle early doors.
The pack battle was fascinating in that opening period. Munster Rugby with John Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne prominent in the scrum set piece were winning penalties and setting the attacking foundation for the side. JJ Hanrahan was presented with a regulation three pointer to open the scoring in the first ten minutes of the contest.
Munster Rugby were looking to create a high tempo game but Castres were resolute in defensive duties and their breakdown work at times stifled the hosts ability to create quick ruck ball.
The line out exchanges ebbed and flowed in the windy conditions. Munster Rugby resorting to the long throw at the back of the line out more than once which did not have the desired effect. The line out was shaky at best for the hosts and with it squandered several opening period opportunities.
Munster Rugby forcing the play too much
The second quarter was all Munster Rugby; predominantly camped in the Castres 22 but there was a lack of composure in the attacking lines from the hosts; forcing passes which were not on due to the weather conditions and the back line running lines were at times ponderous and static with minimal supporting runners.
The passage of play whereby Conor Murray realizing that Castres had over committed players to the left hand side switched play but there was a total breakdown in communications with Tadhg Beirne who knocked on. It summed up the host’s lack of precision with ball in hand.
Castres were happy to hit the dressing rooms at half-time only 6-0 down. JJ Hanrahan slotting over another close range penalty after good play from the Munster pack in the second quarter. All Munster Rugby dominance but the pressure built up not yielding the desired points on the board.
Sharp start to the second half from Munster Rugby
With management instructions ringing in their ears, Munster Rugby started the second half with renewed tempo and vigor putting pressure on Castres to force a series of scrums just on the Castres 22. Murray to the fore as his line break saw a deft offload to Rory Scannell to crash over. JJ Hanrahan slotting over the extras and the game was out to a thirteen point lead.
Castres offered a lifeline but fail to take
Immediately after the concession of the opening try, Castres rumbled into life and were rewarded a penalty which was missed but Murray knocked on in the dead goal area. Castres with a five meter scrum but the resultant ball carries were utterly dismissed by the hosts. Beirne prominent as Castres lost possession on the Munster Rugby 22′. The box kick clearance from Conor Murray marked the end of the contest as Castres again needed to put in the tackle count as Munster Rugby started to probe further.
Munster Rugby start to create line breaks
More quality work from Conor Murray setup the second Munster Rugby try of the afternoon; created space inside for CJ Stander to cross over the try line. The score settled Munster Rugby nerves to a certain extent and more good pack pressure resulting in JJ Hanrahan slotting three points to make the score 23-0. The game was over as a contest. The key question was whether Munster Rugby could score an additional two tries in the last fifteen minutes?
The third try arrived with around five minutes left in the contest and it was probably the best move Munster Rugby conjured up in the whole contest. Superb line break and offload from Arnold to Scannell, Scannell to Mathewson who then setup Hanrahan away for the third try. 30-0 as JJ Hanrahan kicked the regulation conversion.
Bonus Point is elusive
If the Munster Rugby faithful were thinking of a late bonus point try, it was quickly snuffed out as JP Doyle was central to a baffling officiating decision. Andrew Conway was adjudged to have taken a Castres player out before receiving the ball just five meters from the Munster Rugby try line. A dead cert penalty try but Doyle botched the call and gave Castres a penalty instead. A penalty try would have seen Munster Rugby restarting and more than likely securing field position for a possible bonus point try. Oh well!
Castres’ pack mauled the ball to within ten meters of the line and then decided to launch the ball wide and resulting in a try out in the corner despite the best efforts of JJ Hanrahan. 30-5. Full Time. The bonus point not secured and whether this proves to be a missed opportunity, we won’t know until January 19th.
The officiating at times descended into anarchy. Doyle lost control of this fixture in the opening period; no repercussions for Castres at the scrum as Munster Rugby dominated and won a series of scrum penalties. The players decided then to settle old scores and a couple of flash points ensued. The Conway decision summed up a bad day in the office for the officiating crew; it was an easy call. If Conway was getting yellow, then surely it implied preventing a certain try. Penalty try. Castres fans were scratching their heads like the home faithful.
Munster Rugby adapted to the late personnel scratches but there was a nervousness in their attacking play. There was precious line breaks in the opening period and the line out malfunctioned at a rate of knots. Cleote acting as first receiver had mixed result; ball was potentially a little delayed and did not provide colleagues with the time and space to impress. Cleote and Beirne in breakdown work were on point.
A reality check for Munster Rugby in their attacking play. Defense was solid if not overly stretched to breaking point such was the limited ball that Castres had in the Munster Rugby 22′. The mission is clear for Munster Rugby; a road trip series against Castres and Gloucester Rugby will determine their European Cup ambitions. Roll on next weekend!
Pool 4 is loaded with talent and formidable home fortresses. Welford Road, Kingspan Stadium, Parc y Scarlets and Paris La Defense Arena. A pool which has different dynamics since the start of this season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.
Scarlets must strike early
The opening home fixture for Scarlets conceivably could determine how the Welsh region will fare in this competition. Racing 92 are the visitors and this has the potential to be an epic encounter. Scarlets still are a formidable side but when you consider the likes of John Barclay, Scott Williams and Tadhg Beirne are no longer at the club and the loss to injury of Cubby Davies, it is an arduous task this weekend.
Racing 92 come into this fixture loaded with squad talent. No doubt, Donnacha Ryan will be thrust into competition to disrupt Scarlets set piece. Finn Russell, Simon Zebo will look to continue their good starts with the Parisian club. This pool battle looks likely to go down to the final game of the pool in January.
Leicester Tigers. A club in crisis after sacking Matt O’Connor after one game this season (yes, it was mauling against Exeter Chiefs) but surely insufficient time to pull the trigger. Geordan Murphy has taken on the interim role with mixed results. A couple of keynote wins in recent weeks has also seen reversals to Worcester (H) and Wasps (A). The style of rugby is every much a work in progress with Tuilagi and May the main threats out wide provided an over worked pack provide a platform.
Ulster Rugby come into this competition with a lengthy injury list and a sudden reversal of form. Interpro losses to Munster Rugby (A) and Connacht Rugby (H) has checked early season optimism where front row issues have surfaced and the squad depth looking stretched to breaking point. Rory Best and Iain Henderson in the pack will need to lead by example and hope that Cooney and Burns get sufficient ball to launch McCloskey in open exchanges. Cooney’s performances will also be key.
This is a pool which looks like a two horse race unless Leicester Tigers or Ulster Rugby can upset the other two teams early doors. Round two fixtures will be noteworthy. Ulster travel to Scarlets while Racing 92 entertain Leicester Tigers (familiarity breeding contempt) and a true pattern could emerge after this round. Racing 92 squad depth means that they should top this pool with Scarlets securing a runners up berth.
An interesting pool awaits in pool two with intense pack battles the order of the day with Munster Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester Rugby and Castres in the mix. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the pool and has genuine concerns about Munster Rugby this season.
Munster Rugby vulnerable?
When you consider Munster Rugby’s season so far, it reads played six; won three (all at home), lost three (all away). The road trip performances have seen the Irish province leak thirty plus points and there is no quick fix in terms of the defensive issues seen so far. The scrum half injury crisis could be a decisive blow as well with star player Conor Murray not in contention to play in the competition’s first two rounds at least. The home form will need to be on point to progress but nothing will be taken for granted.
Exeter Chiefs look best equipped to take advantage of Munster Rugby vulnerability. Their imposing pack has being their foundation and their ability to turn penalty count to tries using their marauding maul is a source of great concern for their pool opponents. Exeter Chiefs under Rob Baxter have also evolved their game plan with Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Alex Cuthbert resulting in some very impressive score tallies. The home form in Sandy Park will be strong; question mark on the road trip form which did lag last season so an interesting subplot.
Gloucester Rugby make a welcome return to the competition; an incredible rugby town and knowledgeable rugby support. The Shed will be hopping for this tournament. Gloucester Rugby are evolving into a very competitive side; their expansive play seen to full effect last season and with their acquisition of Danny Ciprani, the attacking options are endless with an extremely pacy back three (Marshall, Trinder, Sharples). A team which has recruited well in the pack with a strong South African influence. Grobler at lock has all the attributes to be a sensational signing. A team to be feared and their home opener against Castres will gauge morale and confidence of pool progression here.
Castres. The great enigma of European Cup competition. When they are interested (more than likely at home), they can cause massive issues for travelling teams but their policy of fielding below strength sides on the road will mean that the French Top 14 kingpins will languish in the mid-pack. An opportunity perhaps for the other pool teams to secure five points in their home games?
The hope is that we will see some exciting contests but who am I kidding, the arm wrestle games will be a key theme and start with the Exeter Chiefs home opener against Munster Rugby. Potentially two teams to advance from this group given that Castres may travel light on the road. Munster Rugby look vulnerable here and suspect a last round miracle may be required to advance as a pool runner up. Exeter Chiefs for me look the form side in this pool. Plenty of twists and turns in this pool.
After the opening salvos in domestic competition, European Cup action looms large on the horizon for the next two weeks. The Heineken Champions Cup sees five intriguing pools with quite a few teams fancying their chances of quarter-final progression. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the pools.
Pool 1: Pool of Champions
When this pool emerged, it was dubbed the ‘pool of champions’ and rightly so given the history of Toulouse, Wasps, Bath Rugby and Leinster Rugby in this competition. However, one side looks destined to rule the roost in this pool and it is the reigning European Champions Cup holders.
Leinster Rugby have started as they finished last season, the side have gained momentum in recent weeks with some keynote interpro wins against Connacht Rugby and Munster Rugby in recent weekends. Squad depth looks good for the province and with James Lowe on superb try scoring form, hard not to go past Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s charges.
Wasps come into the competition on the back of a solid domestic league opening. Third place in the standings with four wins and two losses, the most recent came to Gloucester Rugby (21-35) and a performance which was described by Dai Young as a ‘kick up the backside’. Several injury concerns coming into the competition with the likes of Joe Launchbury, Dan Robson and Brad Shields. Home form will be key for Wasps.
Bath Rugby come into the competition with more questions than answers. Undoubted talent in the ranks but there are vulnerabilities in the pack which were exposed by Exeter Chiefs last weekend (24-39). Teams need to play clever against Bath Rugby, go too expansive and this team will punish any inaccuracies in open play. Their home game against Toulouse will be a key fixture in determining how far Bath Rugby go in this pool phase.
Toulouse have an amazing rugby union fan base, historical success but in recent times, success has dried up. The squad boasts the likes of Gray, Medard and Kaino but the Top 14 results have being a mixed bag. An unconvincing 10-0 win to struggling Agen last weekend, a thumping loss away to Montpellier (66-15) on the road. All pool opponents heading to Stade Toulousain will get a tough game, the road trip form of the side is a big question mark.
Provided Leinster Rugby can safely negotiate their first two opening fixtures (Wasps at home, Toulouse on the road), they should be well set to advance as pool winners with December fixtures against Bath Rugby. I do not see two teams advancing from this pool; the English teams potentially cancelling each other out and a vulnerable Toulouse side on the road will not win enough points away to secure a quarter final spot.