Dublin, IRL — With the holiday season officially over we turn our attention away from domestic derbies back to the European stage as the contentious final rounds of Champions Cup loom over the next two weekends. For many clubs this weekend’s Round 5 matches are do-or-die scenarios, their last shot at attaining a spot in the knockout stages. With the entire European season on the line, teams on the bubble have no choice but to attack and score tries, ultimately promising exciting offensive matches ahead.
Before we dive too deep into previewing the weekend, make sure to check out our Expert Picks Pool below! Each of our experts predicts the winners from every Champions Cup match in the competition, so check out who they chose and comment at the bottom of the article with your own Picks or predictions!
Usually we preview each individual match for the upcoming weekend, but with the implications of this weekend’s matches on pool placement we’ll instead take a look at each pool as a whole starting with the groups with the most at stake and working our way down.
Pool 5: Bath, Toulon, Scarlets, Treviso
Pool 5 has the most consequential implications from Round 5’s matches. The top three teams in Pool 5, Bath, Toulon, and Scarlets, are separated by a single point. Bath and Toulon, who split the back-to-back matches in Rounds 3 & 4, sit tied on 13 points with Bath currently holding the top spot thanks to a +28 point differential over Toulon.
Despite having lost one more match than the group leaders, Scarlets find themselves just one point from the top of the pool thanks to bonus points secured in each of their four pool matches so far.
Scarlets have an uphill task in terms of setting themselves up for a knockout spot as they kick the weekend off against Bath at The Rec. They enter into this weekend on a three-match Pro14 win streak having muscled out victories over their Welsh rivals. In Champions Cup play, the Welsh club had no trouble beating Treviso in Rounds 3 & 4, but they now have to face Bath and Toulon in consecutive weeks as they vie for a playoff position. Doable, but not easy.
Bath and Toulon, however, have a much easier battle for the pool’s top spot as they each take on Treviso in one of their last two matches. Bath have the tougher task of taking on the Scarlets this Friday evening in a match that they will (at the very least) need a losing bonus point from. Toulon will more likely than not earn a win over Treviso this weekend, making their Round 6 match against Scarlets all the more intriguing.
Pool 1: La Rochelle, Ulster, Wasps, Harlequins
Odds-on pool favorites, La Rochelle, travel to Belfast on Saturday with the hopes of finalizing a spot in the knockouts. A victory of any kind would all-but secure Pool 1 in their first season of Champions Cup competition. The western French club burst onto the scene this season with three massive wins over their Pool 1 counterparts and looked set to secure the pool in Round 4 before a gutsy Wasps performance brought the newcomers back down to earth. They’ll face and Ulster side recently trounced by provincial rivals Leinster and Connacht and marred by an inability to find consistency.
Even so, the Ulstermen sit just two points behind Rochelle and would surprisingly find themselves first in the pool with a victory over the French heavyweights. The Irish province will be boosted by their hearty home crowd Who will fully know the implications of Saturday’s match.
At the other end of the pool, Wasps, currently third, face a Harlequins side that is yet to win a match in Europe this season. The Wasps will make the trip down to the Stoop in the hopes that a victory will push them into second place, setting up a decisive Round 6 clash with Ulster to decide who goes through to the knockouts. Wasps, however, needs to attain at least one bonus point from their final two matches if they are to compete with La Rochelle at the top of the pool.
Pool 4: Munster, Racing, Castres, Leicester
Munster sit atop Pool 4 with four points in hand over second-placed Racing 92. The two will face off against one another on Sunday in a potentially group-deciding clash at Racing’s brand new domed home in western Paris, the U Arena. A win for the Irish province would immediately book them a place in the quarterfinals while a win for Racing 92 would force the pool to be decided in Round 6. Racing absolutely annihilated Clermont in Top 14 play last weekend, so a victory for the Irish visitors will be no easy task.
Castres and Leicester sit in third and fourth, respectively, in the pool separated by a single point. Leicester travel to France to take on the former French Top 14 Champions in a battle that, theoretically, could set up a miracle shot at knockout qualification for the cictor. With a Munster victory this weekend neither side could top the group, but consecutive bonus point victories could push either Castres or the Tigers to a playoff place as one of the best second-placed sides.
Pool 2: Clermont, Ospreys, Saracens, Northampton
Reigning European Rugby Champions Cup Champions, Saracens, are in danger of missing out of the knockouts completely as they face the Ospreys in Wales this Saturday. Sarries dropped their back-to-back matches against Clermont in early December, putting them in a desperate struggle for points in the two final pool rounds. The North London club beat Ospreys 36-34 in Round 2, but the Ospreys run of form at home puts them in a great position to eliminate the reigning champions.
A win for the Ospreys would set up a Round 6 matchup against current pool toppers, Clermont, in what could possibly be a winner-take-all clash. For that to happen, however, Clermont would have to either lose or miss out on a winning bonus point in their match this weekend against Northampton who, despite limited domestic success, has been abysmal in Europe thus far. Clermont will most likely secure four points or more against Northampton, putting them in the drivers seat to win the pool.
Pool 3: Leinster, Montpellier, Exeter, Glasgow
Current Pool 3 leaders, Leinster, look to be Europe’s most in-form team at the moment. After blazing through their interprovincial rivals in the Pro14 over Christmas, Leinster gets to host current Pool 3 dregs, Glasgow, in a match that would secure the Irish province a home quarterfinal. Glasgow’s incredible opening run in the Pro14 had a 0% translation into this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup campaign, an outing they will hope to forget very quickly.
Meanwhile, Montpellier will make the trip to England’s southwest in the hopes of pushing Leinster’s supremacy to a Round 6 decider. Victory over the Chiefs would put them in prime position for one of the best second-placed knockout spots. Even so, the French club will have their hands full with a trip to Sandy Park to take on an Exeter side that, despite their 2-2 European record, is incredibly dangerous and resourceful. If Exeter manages to beat their French visitors on Saturday, they would set up a Round 6 fixture with Glasgow that could spring them into one of the final knockout spots.
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