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How they stand: The state of play across the Champions Cup pools

Defending champions Leinster are in a strong position, Munster lead the way in their pool and Ulster are bidding to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in five years.

AS IS USUALLY the case after the pivotal December back-to-backs, the Heineken Champions Cup picture has become much clearer heading into the final two games of the pool stages this weekend. 

Defending champions Leinster and Munster are best placed of the provinces heading into rounds five and six, while Ulster have given themselves a strong chance of qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time in five years.

The race for the quarter-finals has certainly started to heat up, with as many as 13 clubs still in with a shout of progressing through to the knockout rounds as we head towards a pivotal weekend of European action. 

Here’s how it all stands.

Pool 1 

Dan Leavy after the game Leinster recorded back-to-back wins over Bath. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Toulouse put the pressure on Leinster before Christmas when they made it four wins from four with a bonus-point defeat of Wasps, ahead of the province’s reprise with Bath at the Aviva Stadium. 

The Top 14 outfit had stretched their lead at the summit of Pool 1 to seven points ahead of kick-off in Dublin, but Leo Cullen’s side responded in style to set up what has become an effective pool decider between the two four-time winners at the RDS this Saturday lunchtime. 

Bath’s defeat to the defending champions has ended their hopes of progression, so it’s all eyes on the RDS, with the winner of that game then assuming pole position to secure a home quarter-final.

Despite defeat to Toulouse in round two, Leinster are in control of their own fate, in the knowledge victories over the French side and Wasps in Coventry in round six will assure them of top spot. 

Toulouse host Bath at the Stade Ernest Wallon in round six, and it seems certain that two teams will progress from this pool.

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 12.19.19

Remaining fixtures:

  • Saturday 12 January: Leinster v Toulouse, RDS, 1pm
  • Saturday 12 January: Bath v Wasps, the Rec, 3.15pm
  • Sunday 20 January: Toulouse v Bath, Stade Ernest Wallon, 3.15pm
  • Sunday 20 January: Wasps v Leinster, Ricoh Arena, 3.15pm.

Pool 2 

Peter O’Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Conway, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls and JJ Hanrahan dejected after the game Munster were left to rue a missed chance in France. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It is particularly tight in Pool 2, with all four clubs still mathematically in contention. 

Munster were left to rue a missed opportunity in Castres in round four, as the southern province’s disappointing defeat has blown the pool wide open heading into January. 

Johann van Graan’s side remain in pole position to advance but Exeter Chiefs’ win at Gloucester in December now means just four points separate top and bottom. 

Munster travel to Kingsholm to face Gloucester on Friday night for a crunch tie, before they welcome Exeter to Thomond Park in round six. It’s still all to play for. 

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 12.25.55

Remaining fixtures:

  • Friday 11 January: Gloucester v Munster, Kingsholm, 7.45pm
  • Sunday 13 January: Exeter Chiefs v Castres, Sandy Park, 1pm
  • Saturday 19 January: Castres v Gloucester, Stade Pierre Fabre, 5.30pm
  • Saturday 19 January: Munster v Exeter Chiefs, Thomond Park, 5.30pm

Pool 3 

Jamie George celebrates scoring a try Saracens got the job done in Cardiff in round four. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Saracens are on the verge of booking a home quarter-final after rolling up the sleeves to get the job done at the Cardiff Arms Park in round four, with the Premiership side facing Lyon next up.

The French club have endured a difficult first Champions Cup campaign, and are the only side without a point after four rounds, with Saracens fancied to get the one more win they require in the sides’ round five meeting. 

Mark McCall’s side have been in impressive and clinical form throughout the pool stages and, at this juncture, are considered the likeliest challengers to Leinster, having been dumped out at the quarter-final stage last term by the eventual champions. 

Glasgow, meanwhile, look very well-placed to take their place in the quarter-finals too as they have been able to translate their strong Pro14 performances onto the European stage. 

A win against Cardiff at Scotstoun this weekend should do the trick for Dave Rennie’s charges.

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 12.52.30

Remaining fixtures: 

  • Sunday 13 January: Lyon v Saracens, Stade de Gerland, 3.15pm
  • Sunday 13 January: Glasgow Warriors v Cardiff Blues, Scotstoun, 3.15pm
  • Saturday 19 January: Saracens v Glasgow Warriors, Allianz Park, 1pm
  • Saturday 19 January: Cardiff Blues v Lyon, Cardiff Arms Park, 1pm

Pool 4 

Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring a try with Tommy O'Toole Stockdale and Ulster are building up a head of steam. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ulster’s interest in the Champions Cup has ended in January in each of the last four seasons, but a maximum haul of 10 points from their December double-header against Scarlets has engendered real hope at Kingspan Stadium.

Saturday’s crunch meeting with pool leaders Racing 92 in Belfast will be crucial for Dan McFarland’s side if they are to prevent the French heavyweights from topping the pool.

Racing are currently five points clear after securing a try bonus-point in a big win over Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, and the northern province will likely need all 10 points from their remaining two pool games to win the pool.

Ulster host Racing and then travel to Leicester in round six, and winning one of those and taking at least a point from the other should still put them in a good position to secure one of the quarter-final berths. 

It has been a miserable campaign for Scarlets, last year’s semi-finalists, and Leicester, who Geordan Murphy admitted are now at their lowest ebb in 20 years.

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 13.03.48

Remaining fixtures: 

  • Saturday 12 January: Ulster v Racing 92, Kingspan Stadium, 3.15pm
  • Saturday 12 January: Scarlets v Leicester Tigers, Parc y Scarlets, 5.30pm
  • Saturday 19 January: Racing 92 v Scarlets, U Arena, 3.15pm
  • Saturday 19 January: Leicester Tigers v Ulster, Welford Road, 3.15pm

Pool 5 

Duhan van der Merwe celebrates scoring a try with teammates Edinburgh are in flying form. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Victories for Edinburgh and Montpellier in round four put them in the driving seat for a spot in the quarter-finals next March, with the pair first and second in Pool 5 respectively.  

Just four points currently separate the two, but Richard Cockerill’s side produced a superb away performance to beat Newcastle Falcons and put themselves in pole position ahead of back-to-back games against French opposition.

Edinburgh play Toulon away on Saturday and Montpellier at home six days later, knowing that one win will almost certainly be enough to get them into the last eight.

Should Cockerill’s side progress alongside Glasgow Warriors, it will be the first time two Scottish clubs have qualified for the quarter-finals.

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 13.20.23

Remaining fixtures:

  • Saturday 12 January: Montpellier v Newcastle Falcons, GGL Stadium, 1pm
  • Saturday 12 January: Toulon v Edinburgh, Stade Felix-Mayol, 5.30pm
  • Friday 18 January: Newcastle Falcons v Toulon, Kingston Park, 7.45pm
  • Friday 18 January: Edinburgh v Montpellier, Murrayfield, 7.45pm

So, with all that in mind, here is how the top eight seeds currently stand heading into round five, with Racing the leading qualifier and Saracens, Toulouse, Edinburgh and Munster the other pool winners. 

  1. Racing 92 — 19 points
  2. Saracens — 18 points
  3. Toulouse — 17 points
  4. Edinburgh — 15 points 
  5. Munster — 12 points
  6. Leinster — 15 points
  7. Glasgow Warriors — 14 points
  8. Ulster — 14 points 
  9. Montpellier — 11 points
  10. Castres — 9 points
  11. Exeter Chiefs — 8 points
  12. Gloucester — 8 points
  13. Newcastle Falcons — 8 points
  14. Leicester Tigers — 6 points
  15. Toulon — 6 points
  16. Bath — 5 points
  17. Cardiff Blues — 4 points
  18. Wasps — 3 points
  19. Scarlets — 2 points
  20. Lyon — 0 points 

– This article was first published on 18 December 2018

Ahead of a huge weekend of Heineken Champions Cup action, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey assess the provinces’ chances of putting a foot in the last eight:

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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