European Rugby Champions Cup playoff push gathers momentum

Round Four – Playoff places to be secured

This has been a strange tournament with Covid-19 influencing the competition format of the opening round to pandemic fixture walkovers and cancellations resulting in completely inconsistent rulings which will not be concluded after round four this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the final opening group fixtures and tries to predict the last sixteen ties. 

Pool A

Ulster Rugby have qualified and are currently sitting in second position in the pool. Three wins from three and fourteen points at present.

Ulster Rugby can secure a potential top seed and a lengthy home run at the Kingspan for the playoffs with a bonus point try win over an ASM Clermont side who need a result to secure a top eight berth.

Clermont just about got over the line against Sale Sharks in round three, a repeat performance in terms of the tries conceded will mean an absolute home win banker. Ulster Rugby should not pass up this opportunity. 

Racing 92 are humming along quite nicely in this European campaign. They also are on fourteen points and host Northampton Saints in their final game. Racing 92 will fancy their chances of securing the bonus point try given their home surroundings and with Teddy Thomas in good form, Saints defensively could be exposed further like they were against Ulster Rugby in round three. Saints unable to stop the Ulster Rugby when they created width in their attack. You would fear for them here too. 

La Rochelle currently in third place. Ronan O’Gara’s charges have created momentum in recent weeks after a slow start to their domestic campaign. A bonus point try win over Bath Rugby in round three has secured qualification but a home second leg in the last sixteen is required. 

A trip to Glasgow awaits and the Warriors need a home win sitting on the final playoff berth. Glasgow Warriors’ reaction to that second half thumping away at Sandy Park will be keenly noted. Scotstoun is a tough place to get a result but La Rochelle will prey on Glasgow’s vulnerabilities in the pack to potentially secure a win. 

Leinster Rugby are one of the sides feeling rightly aggrieved at tournament organizers currently. The Montpellier away fixture walkover is still contentious given that the province had a squad and management ready to fly to France for the fixture. Additional appeals surely are coming given the tournament organizers decision to award two points to the English / French team fixtures cancelled due to the pandemic in round two. 

Leinster Rugby thumped Montpellier for eighty-nine points in round three. Their attacking play will be too much for a Bath Rugby who are struggling all ends up domestically and Europe. Johann van Graan has picked a monster project next season! 

Exeter Chiefs could benefit from any of the top four slipping in the final round of games. Exeter Chiefs were superb in their second half demolition of Glasgow Warriors; the pack platform was awesome and the 30+ points haul was eye-catching. 

An away tie to Montpellier whose team selection will be keenly noted looms next. Montpellier selection in round three brought the competition into disrepute. Will the French side decide to field a strong team or keep with the squad of players who were hammered in the RDS in round three?

Pack platform looks the key here. Exeter Chiefs will expect a tough game in the trenches, but will they get one? A genuine question for Montpellier after the round three humiliation. A club worth their salt will put out their best foot forward after round three but it is hard to gauge where their priority is. 

The big question to be answered in round really is for the final playoff berth. Ospreys without a point are gone and have a trip to Sale Sharks and could potentially leave Manchester without a point after this outing.

Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby face gargantuan tasks as described above. I hope Glasgow Warriors do enough to secure their playoff spot. The sight of Montpellier in the last sixteen would be a bad image for the competition after their round three squad selection decision. 

Pool B

Harlequins continue to impress; they sit on top of this pool with fourteen points. They entertain Castres who will select a second and third string selection for the fixture at the Stoop. Castres are a tough team to play against but with Marcus Smith creating line breaks and attacking opportunities at will, Quins should win and secure the bonus point provided they set the tempo and dominance early. 

Leicester Tigers also sit on fourteen points. A superb comeback victory over Connacht Rugby in round three secured qualification. The final round game is an intriguing one against Bordeaux-Begles who sit in fifth place in the pool whose team selection will determine how this game goes. 

Bordeaux-Begles were very impressive over Scarlets in round three; quick passing interchanges caught the eye but Bordeaux-Begles may field fringe players safe in the knowledge that they are in the top eight. Tigers will win here, impressed by their pack and determination to win in Galway last time out. 

Munster Rugby are a point behind the two Gallagher Premiership sides in third. The European Cup campaign for Munster Rugby started with the side producing a stirring performance where the academy players stepped up to the plate and secured a bonus point win. The last two games against Castres were arm wrestles; precious little to get excited about. 

Thomond Park for the final round should see an improved spectacle as Wasps will be looking to attack and secure a win to secure their playoff berth. Wasps with the standout win of round three scoring 30 points against Toulouse with fourteen men.

Munster Rugby will need to improve their attacking play dramatically to win this contest. 50/50 call here truth be told. Wasps have an opportunity to win here. Munster Rugby may drop to fourth in the Pool A standings after this fixture. 

Bristol Bears provided good attacking moments in their win over Stade Francais in round three. They travel across the Severn Bridge to Scarlets who have disappointed in Europe this season. Bears have the attacking flair to secure a bonus point try win. Scarlets’ mindset will be interesting, outside chance of qualification but defensively have not been on it in this campaign. Bristol Bears for me in a high-scoring contest. 

Connacht Rugby sit in sixth place. The leadup to this final round will be about regrouping, rebuilding team confidence after the side threw away an eighteen-point lead to the Leicester Tigers in round three. 

The pack needs to improve in set piece and the bench impact needs to increase. Connacht Rugby are at their best with ball in hand, attacking and on the front foot. When they deviate from that game plan and go conservative, they struggle and allow teams back into games. 

Stade Francais away is a tough fixture ask. I am not sure if Connacht Rugby win this. Stade Francais can let the hair down and play some quality rugby so Connacht Rugby will have their hands full here. If Connacht Rugby trust their processes and kept their heads, then a win is very much on.

Toulouse are under a bit of pressure. The Wasps loss in round three was a shock. Wasps pack work rate and desire broke Toulouse. The fact that Wasps were down to fourteen players was also a reality check for the French side. 

Toulouse now must beat Cardiff Blues to guarantee their playoff berth. Cardiff Blues progressing well and could pose issues with ball in hand here, but you would think that Toulouse will be focused and look to right the wrongs of round three. Dupont and Ntamack will look to dominate proceedings provided their pack sets up the platform. Home win here. 

Last Sixteen Draw Predictions

Two leg fixtures with the top seeds getting home fixture in the second leg

Ulster Rugby (1) vs. Wasps (8)

Racing 92 (2) vs. Connacht Rugby (7)

La Rochelle (3) vs. Bordeaux-Begles (6) 

Leinster Rugby (4) vs. Toulouse (5) 

Harlequins (1) vs. Glasgow Warriors (8)

Leicester Tigers (2) vs. ASM Clermont Auvergne (7)

Bristol Bears (3) vs. Sale Sharks (6) 

Munster Rugby (4) vs. Exeter Chiefs (5) 

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