European Champions Cup: Saracens and Exeter facing early knockout-rugby as Wasps and Bath eye quarter-finals

Harlequins, Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers may be all but out of Europe, but there's still plenty to play for ahead of the final two rounds of the Champions Cup

Jack de Menezes
Monday 18 December 2017 16:32
Comments
Exeter Chiefs can still qualify for the quarter-finals despite back-to-back defeats by Leinster
Exeter Chiefs can still qualify for the quarter-finals despite back-to-back defeats by Leinster

Talk of English rugby’s demise in Europe may have been premature on last weekend’s evidence as Wasps and Bath returned to winning ways, while Saracens and Exeter Chiefs displayed resolute performances even if the final result went against them.

For Harlequins, Northampton Saints and – most surprisingly – Leicester Tigers, it proved to be the end of the road. Quins and Saints will not mind too much, as they have much bigger issues to deal with in the form of an injury crisis and finding a new director of rugby respectively. But for Leicester, the comprehensive 25-16 defeat by Munster proved just how wide the gulf is between the two-time European champions and the best on the continent.

The solace came in that Manu Tuilagi came through his first 80-minute appearance of the year unscathed, but for a club of Leicester’s historical standing, the back-to-back defeats to the Irish heavyweights will sting for some time. The win maintains Johann van Graan’s 100 per cent start to life at Munster, who now lead Pool 4 by four points and should be safely through to the quarter-finals as long as they beat one of Racing 92 and Castres.

Given how far back Racing (four points), Castres (eight points) and Leicester (six points) are to the pool leaders, one of the three-best runners-up is unlikely to come from this group.

That is not quite the case in Pool One though. Wasps’ impressive 21-3 victory on Sunday may have come at a cost of losing in-form wing Elliot Daly to injury, but it has blown the group wide open and, with the top three teams group within just five points of each other, there’s plenty to play for. The likelihood is that the best runners-up will come from Pools one, two, three and five, meaning that at least one of La Rochelle, Ulster and Wasps and potentially two will miss out on the last-eight, and with La Rochelle and Wasps due to face pool whipping boys Harlequins, it’s Ulster who will be up against it to make the knockout stages.

Scott Spedding's late long-distance penalty dealt Saracens a narrow defeat in Pool 2

Pool two is a rather more straight-forward scenario in that after their emphatic victory over Saracens last week and nail-biting win over the same opposition on Sunday, Clermont Auvergne look destined for the top spot. Saracens know this, but it was the much-improved performance in the 24-21 defeat at the Stade Marcel-Michelin that will convince the reigning European champions that they have enough in the locker to beat Ospreys and Northampton and reach the last-eight as one of the runners-up – which looks likely to come down to a straight shoot-out in round five when Saracens cross the Severn to take on Ospreys.

A rather similar picture has emerged in Pool Three, where Leinster are threatening to run away with the pool and leave Montpellier and Exeter battling for second place. Despite their two gutsy performances against Leinster over the last nine days, the Chiefs are up against it to qualify and must get a result against the French side in the next round to have realistic hopes of making the quarter-finals.

Anthony Watson scored twice as Bath beat three-time champions Toulon 

And so to Pool Five, the only one currently topped by an English side. Bath recorded one of their most famous victories in Europe outside of their triumphant 1997/98 campaign, and will head into January confident of gaining results at The Recreation Ground against the Scarlets before an away trip to Benetton. Should they do so, and Toulon do the same, both will qualify for the knockout stage and take one of the runners-up spots automatically as they will likely have more points than the other sides in second place.

European rugby will be put on ice over the festive period as the Premiership, Pro14 and Top 14 returns. But come mid-January, and with the Six Nations firmly on the horizon, the battle of who wants it more will return for what is set-up to be two blockbuster rounds of European rugby.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in