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Champions Cup power rankings: Leinster first, Ulster seventh and the smell that won’t go away

You can’t write Saracens off even if you want to.

Leinster and Saracens are still the top two sides in Europe.
Leinster and Saracens are still the top two sides in Europe.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The old champion was just shy of his 39th birthday, not so much past his best as half-way to the grave. Yet here he was, trying to reclaim the world title for a fourth time – putting his life, never mind his reputation, at risk.

This was October 1980, the night they paid Muhammad Ali $8 million to get beat up by Larry Holmes; age losing to youth, the paymaster to a former sparring partner.

Later, after he had showered and changed, the nature of their personal relationship came up in conversation. “Why,” Holmes was asked, “did you hurt your friend so bad?”

The answer was delivered in 10 words: “Once that man has a pulse,” Holmes said, “he ain’t ever beat.”

It’s a sentiment you could transfer across a few decades and into a different sport. This time Saracens who are the ones on the ropes, theirs a world of relegation, recrimination and relocation. Players will move, some now, most in the summer. Before they go, though, they’ve one last shot at glory, a leaving do; their lap of dishonour.

Standing in their way are Leinster, the team they defeated in last year’s final, a side incidentally whose last home defeat in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup came 14 years ago, the day Ronan O’Gara did his impression of Ed Moses.  

You’d imagine they’ll stretch that record out further. The formbook says so; the bookies agree. Yet twice in the last nine days, Saracens have stared the hangman in the eye and watched him untie the rope. Once they have a pulse, you can’t rule them out.

1: LEINSTER

They’ve proven their ability to deliver over the last two-and-a-half years, winning three trophies out of four; chalking up 16 wins from 16 games this season.

You’d imagine they’re pretty much flawless, especially when you consider Johnny Sexton and Jack Conan have still to come back into the mix. And yet, on deeper inspection, there was something about the opening quarter of Saturday’s game in Treviso that may have caught Mark McCall’s eye.

johnny-sexton Leinster will be even stronger when Sexton returns from injury. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sticking rigidly to a what-we-have-we-hold policy, Benetton starved Leinster of possession, albeit with the help of a few fortuitous refereeing decisions. In doing so, they exposed a chink in the Leinster system.

Watching from his London home, what will Mark McCall have thought? His players are much better than Treviso’s and while playing a lot of rugby in their own half has been noticeably missing from their risk-adverse tactics book over the years – it is a strategy that may work.

Imagine if McCall places his trust in Sarries’ attack rather than their defence. Imagine if they enter the final quarter of that game ahead. How will Leinster react in those circumstances? Will they still cut loose as they have done on so many occasions this season?

He’s plenty to be thinking about these nights but when he’s a spare moment, McCall may cast his eye over a few of Leinster’s results and notice that while they’ve been free-scoring, they’ve also coughed up a fair few points – Ulster scoring 42, Benetton 27 (in the Pro14 meeting) and then 19 when they visited the RDS for the opening pool game of the Champions Cup.

Northampton also hit Leo Cullen’s side for 21 points in the pre-Christmas game at the Aviva but that tally was disguised by the fact Leinster got 50. Deep down, McCall will know this will be, by some distance, the biggest test of Leinster’s season. This quarter-final at the Aviva is this year’s de facto final.

2: SARACENS

Morally, they may be bankrupt but if sport was about morals then Mother Teresa would have been champion of the world not the poor.

Yes, Saracens broke the rules. And yet there is another truth. They are hard to like but even harder to beat. Look at their circumstances. On Friday, they were brought in for a meeting at 8.30am where the players were told about their impending relegation.

Normally, it’s tea and toast on a breakfast menu; this time the choice basically revolved around taking a pay-cut or getting off the books. Yet look how they responded on Sunday. Billy Vunipola broke his arm; his replacement, Will Skelton, got red-carded. They were not up against any old team, either. It was Racing 92, hitherto unbeaten in Europe this season.

Yet once again, Saracens found a way to win.

This is your passion,” Brad Barritt, their captain, told the players before the game. “This is something we’ve all grown up loving. In many ways we don’t go into it to make money. We don’t go into it to pursue a career. It is your passion and we now have 80 minutes to let yourself be free from everything that is going on externally. Let’s go out there and enjoy it, club in together and leave with a good feeling.”

They did. To everyone else, they’re a bad smell that won’t go away but the reality is that if they beat Leinster, they’ll win it again.

 

maro-itoje-celebrates-his-try-with-brad-barritt Barritt's speech inspired Saracens to victory. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

3: EXETER CHIEFS

If Saracens are the pantomime villains, then these are definitely the good guys of English rugby. Handed a cheque for £350,000 as part of the sanctions against Saracens, the club handed the money to charity.

This year they have also been lucky recipients, though, an easy draw in the pool stage preceding another easy one in the quarter-finals.

So, you can chalk their name into the semis, where they will probably play Toulouse, and where we’ll see if Harry Williams, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill can maintain their form at a higher level.

The bigger question, however, revolves around their style. It may be good enough to prevail in England but at elite European level, you need a bit of stardust. Stuart Hogg and Jack Nowell offer some of that but Nowell as well as Henry Slade are currently injured and the quality of Exeter’s finishing on Saturday was mediocre.

4: TOULOUSE

Like all the big spending French clubs, they’ve so much going for them; a deep squad, athleticism, an impressive set-piece. They’ve also something else in their favour, a home quarter-final.

It’s just as well. Over the last decade they have played five knock-out games on the road and lost all five. Flat-track bullies at home, this current Toulouse side have yet to prove they can win a big knock-out game outside of France.

5: CLERMONT-AUVERGNE

Serial runners-up, having lost 12 out of 14 French championship finals, Clermont have also been beaten in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 European Cup deciders.

At some stage, you have to wonder whether they’re psychologically scarred by all this, even if it’ll be a somewhat different cast who appear on stage this year. At home, they’re lethal. Away from Montferrand, out of their comfort zone, they’re not. Ulster beat them in Belfast this year; Leinster will get one over them if they are reunited in this year’s semi-final.

6: RACING 92

Money is no object so you build one of the best squads in Europe. You make it to two finals in four years, yet you lose. You have the chance to put the defending champions out in 2020, but you lose again. They have 14 men, you have 15. But they are the ones who win. It just shows. Money can buy great players but not a great culture.  

7: ULSTER

This is an Ulster team that have grown hugely in stature in the last two years and if Dan McFarland would like that to stay a secret, then no one has got around to telling Robert Baloucoune. The kid moves quicker than gossip through an Irish village. “Next level speed,” were the words McFarland used to describe his young winger.

He’s a big-game player, too – as are Jacob Stockdale, Will Addison, John Cooney and increasingly, Luke Marshall. “I think our attack shape and our ability to prise open defences is better now,” McFarland said after Saturday’s win over Bath. “I think our defence is definitely better now, too. But I don’t think we can win a quarter-final away from home – statistically, it would tell us we can’t, or are less likely to – unless we are at our absolute best.”

He is correct. Ulster have been in five quarter-finals in the last 10 years but have won only once. Their home form rarely travels with them into France where they have to go in April. Still, look at where they are now compared to two years ago when they needed a play-off to make it into Europe.

“In the past, we would go into a European campaign thinking if we made the knockouts, that’s a good season,” Rob Herring said. “Now, as a squad, we’re expecting to be there.”

Truthfully, though, this is their ceiling. They won’t get any higher in 2020.

8: NORTHAMPTON SAINTS

You could look at what they did on Saturday in Lyon, scoring 31 second-half points to turn a 17-5 half-time deficit into a victory. Or alternatively you could look at what happened on the two occasions they came up against Leinster this year, coughing up 83 points in two games. Put it this way, if they had have had Munster’s group, they’d be out.

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