European Rugby Champions Cup: News, Notes & Expert Panel Picks

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Leinster recovered from a 20-11 deficit in the first round to defeat Wasps
Leinster recovered from a 20-11 deficit in the first round to defeat Wasps

COVENTRY, ENGLAND – The inaugural version of the European Rugby Champions Cup will see eight meaningful final round matches. Though the process of getting a new tournament was tortuous, the result has been undeniably spectacular. This year’s tournament has been far more competitive than past years and the rugby on display has been similarly impressive. Whatever may happen this weekend, it will be tough to find rugby fans who are displeased with the direction of the pan-European competition. Before we get into the News and Notes, here are our Expert Panel’s Picks:

The Six-Pack Panel Picks
Nobody wants any part of Treviso, and the Italians have made it yet another full season with everyone picking against them. Junior and Declan have faith in Racing’s strength, but everyone else thinks the Saints will prevail at home in the final round.

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Pool One
Clermont and Saracens face off for first place in pool one on Sunday at the Stade Marcel Michelin. Saracens shocked the French giants in the first round of this year’s competition, handing Clermont a 30-23 defeat. That was nearly three months ago, and Clermont has picked up considerable steam as the campaign has worn on. Clermont’s home has a well deserved reputation as a fortress, and it would be one of the all-time great victories for English club rugby if Sarries prevailed. A more likely result will see Clermont advance and secure a home quarterfinal. Saracens sit on 17 points, and may need two losing bonus points to secure a second-place quarterfinalist berth. This will be the last match of the weekend, so both teams head out knowing exactly what they need to attain advancement.

Few predicted at the beginning of the pool that Munster would be one of the few teams playing in a meaningless January match. However, their game against Sale has no stakes beyond prideful considerations. With Paul O’Connell strongly hinting that he will retire following the World Cup, it has been an ignominious final European campaign for the old captain. Sale have not yet won a match, and Danny Cipriani is desperate to impress after being named in Stuart Lancaster’s training squad for the Six Nations. 

Six-Pack Panel Thoughts:
Nobody bit on Saracens at the Stade Michelin, but Junior went out on a limb by picking Sale. For the most part the Six Pack is united in choosing Munster and Clermont.

Pool Two
The second pool has left it late, with three teams solidly in the running for quarterfinal slots. The marquee matchup is Leinster against Wasps. Wasps have arrived a year ahead of schedule in Europe, and have impressed throughout the tournament, beginning with a surprisingly close 25-20 defeat to Leinster in the first round. That bonus point has proved vital, since they sit on 17 points to Leinster’s 18. Leinster will likely qualify with any kind of bonus point, which would take them beyond the reach of Quins. Wasps probably require a victory or two losing bonus points.

Vereniki Goneva will be key to Leicester's hopes of securing a bonus point.
Vereniki Goneva will be key to Leicester’s hopes of securing a bonus point.

Quins are mathematically alive with 13 points, but they require the full five against Castres. That may not be as big a challenge as in years past, with Castres regularly capitulating. The Frenchmen have been slightly better at home, where they will play their final European match of the year. Chris Robshaw and Quins’ England stars may be looking with one eye at the Six Nations; those with their places secure will not want to risk injury right before the most important tournament in four years. If so, there is a slight chance that a motivated Castres could catch the visitors napping.

Six-Pack Panel Thoughts:
Declan continues his policy of picking against English clubs at his own risk, and he is the only man to go for Castres. Leinster and Wasps split the group, with James and Jamie opting for the youthful side.

Pool Three
Leicester’s slim hopes of advancing rest on other teams; they require a Montpelier victory against Toulouse, in addition to some other unlikely results. A try-scoring bonus point is also a requirement for the Tigers. Things could have been so different if Richard Cockerill’s team had not slipped up in Wales against Scarlets, but as things stand, their Pool Three compatriots Toulon are the only side guaranteed a quarterfinal spot at the moment. Ulster are another team playing to salve their considerable pride. The Northern Irish stalwarts have not been last in their pool since 2000-2001, and they will not be eager to enter the record books as the worst team since the turn of the century.

Scarlets and Toulon line up in the other “meaningless” fixture of the round. Scarlets ran Toulon relatively close at the Stade Felix Mayol in the first round, eventually succumbing 28-18. They may be slightly bullish about their chances at home, where they have won both of their matches. The Parc y Scarlets may not be one of the largest venues in Europe, but it can be one of the most intimidating. Much like Castres, Scarlets will be hoping to catch a superior side distracted by thoughts of future glory.

Six-Pack Panel Thoughts:
Declan again picks against the hated English, but he is the lone dissenter in a group where everyone else picked the Tigers and Toulon. JWB looks to round out a perfect pick of the weeks record with his a safe bet; Toulon by 4.

Pool Four
Things have gotten messy in Pool Four. Toulouse are in first on 16 points. Bath follow with 15, while Glasgow have fourteen. The permutations are almost endless. If Bath manage to secure a try-scoring bonus point and Toulouse do not, Bath will go through on top of the group and Toulouse will be through as a second-place quarterfinalist. If both Glasgow and Toulouse win, Toulouse will finish top, and Glasgow will probably require a bonus point of their own to scrape through. Bath and Glasgow face off at the Rec in a hugely important game. Expect the most entertaining match of the weekend, since both teams have offensive firepower to spare and plenty of reason to use it. The loser will be out, so a defense-first approach would be a shock from either side.

Six-Pack Panel Thoughts:
Junior once again bucks the herd in an attempt to gain ground in the last week. He picked Montpelier to pull off the upset of the season. The other split panel comes from the Bath-Glasgow matchup. Declan is the lone holdout for the Warriors, but the punters are far more split; it’s one of the most even matches of the weekend on the betting markets.

Brice Dulin hopes to help secure Racing Mero a valuable home quarterfinal.
Brice Dulin hopes to help secure Racing Mero a valuable home quarterfinal.

Pool Five
Pool Five features a classic winner takes all match between Northampton and Racing Metro at Franklin’s Gardens. Racing secured a mildly surprising upset at home in the first round, but Northampton have looked practically unbeatable since then, running all over Treviso and Ospreys in their other four group matches. Racing have been much more up and down, playing Ospreys close in one game, drawing another, and even allowing Treviso to hang around in a dull 26-10 affair. Northampton are prohibitive favorites to advance, but Racing probably have a quarterfinal place wrapped up by virtue of their bonus point victories over Treviso.

The Italians are just trying not to get embarrassed by an Ospreys team with a point to prove. Ospreys played well in both of their matches against Racing Metro, but they were simply overwhelmed by Northampton’s forward firepower. Nearly every team looks to set a scoring record against Treviso, and the Welsh region is no exception.

Six-Pack Panel Thoughts:
Nobody wants any part of Treviso, and the Italians have made it yet another full season with everyone picking against them. Junior and Declan have faith in Racing’s strength, but everyone else thinks the Saints will prevail at home in the final round.

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About Nicholas Hall 143 Articles
Nick is a senior rugby player at Wheaton College in MA, which is in the Colonial Coast Conference. After being in the slightly less physical "sport" of speech and debate in high school, Nick began playing rugby sophomore year at Wheaton. In addition to writing for RugbyWrapUp.com, Nick writes for the Wheaton Wire - the campus paper.