THE RACE TO qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup comes to a head this weekend and with just one round of pool games remaining, this year is perhaps the tightest.
Leinster’s bonus-point victory over Glasgow Warriors last Sunday secured a home quarter-final for Leo Cullen’s side, but the province are the only team to have assured themselves of progression heading into the sixth and final round of the group campaign.
As it stands, Clermont, Toulon and Ulster currently occupy the remaining home quarter-final berths, while Munster, Scarlets, La Rochelle and Ospreys are the teams that make up the top eight.
With five wins from five, Leinster have done all the hard work ahead of their trip to Montpellier on Saturday [KO 1pm, Sky Sports] and if they can collect one more point in France, Cullen’s charges will progress as top seeds.
Behind them, there is a battle to finish with enough points to secure one of the best runners-up spots. Exeter’s demolition of Montpellier in round five has put the Chiefs in the driving seat, and if they can win in Glasgow, the French side’s interests are over.
A bonus-point win for the English champions at Scotstoun will in all likelihood be enough to progress on 19 points, but it will come down to results elsewhere.
For Munster, the equation is fairly straightforward: beat Castres at Thomond Park on Sunday [KO 1pm, Sky Sports] and they progress to the knock-out stages while all five points will secure them top spot in Pool 4 regardless of how Racing 92 fare against Leicester Tigers.
But last week’s defeat in Paris means even a bonus-point win on Sunday may not be enough to earn home advantage in the next round, because if Clermont and Toulon both win over the weekend and Ulster defeat Wasps with a bonus-point, Johann van Graan’s side would slip out of the top four placings.
There is also a very unlikely scenario whereby Castres come to Limerick and end the afternoon top of the pool — but they’ll need to beat Munster with a bonus-point and hope Leicester account for Racing at Welford Road.
Ulster’s stirring victory over La Rochelle in Belfast last weekend sees Les Kiss’ side hold a one-point advantage heading to Coventry to face Wasps on Sunday [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport]. The northern province know a victory at the Ricoh Arena would be enough to secure a quarter-final berth for the first time since 2014 — but this may only be as one of the best runners-up.
You’d expect La Rochelle to beat already-eliminated Harlequins with a bonus-point at Stade Marcel-Deflandre and five points would see the Top 14 finish on 21 points, which would secure top spot in Pool 1 as they edge the head-to-head record over Ulster.
But should Ulster pick up a bonus-point win against Wasps, they would finish on 22 points and progress as pool winners irrespective of what happens in France and, most significantly, secure a home quarter-final tie at Kingspan Stadium.
If Ulster are turned over by Wasps — who themselves could still sneak into the top eight — there is still a chance of progression, but they must collect a losing bonus-point in defeat for that to have any chance of happening.
As this is the final pool down for decision on Sunday afternoon, the picture will be much clearer for Ulster before they kick off.
The other pools
Defending champions Saracens are facing the possibility of an early elimination from the competition and even a home win over Northampton Saints in Pool 2 may not be enough for Mark McCall’s side to save themselves.
A bonus-point win at Allianz Park would leave Saracens nervously looking over their shoulder while Clermont’s clash with Ospreys on Saturday afternoon is a straight shootout for automatic qualification.
In Pool 5, there is a huge occasion in store at a sold-out Parc y Scarlets as the hosts go head-to-head with three-time winners Toulon in a winner-takes-all clash.
If Scarlets beat the Top 14 outfit, they will finish top of the pool and will be in contention for a home quarter while a Toulon victory would cement their passage through to the last eight.
Challenge Cup: Connacht
Connacht are already into the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup after their thrilling 24-24 draw in Worcester last weekend and another win over bottom club Oyonnax in Galway on Saturday [KO 2.30pm] will ensure a home tie.
Champions Cup round six fixtures:
Pool 3: Glasgow Warriors v Exeter Chiefs, 1pm
Pool 3: Montpellier v Leinster, 1pm
Pool 2: Saracens v Northampton Saints, 3.15pm
Pool 2: Clermont v Ospreys, 3.15pm
Pool 5: Scarlets v Toulon, 5.30pm
Pool 5: Benetton Treviso v Bath, 5.30pm
Pool 4: Leicester Tigers v Racing 92, 1pm
Pool 4: Munster v Castres, 1pm
Pool 1: Wasps v Ulster, 3.15pm
Pool 1: La Rochelle v Harlequins, 3.15pm
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