European Champions Cup
Can anyone stop Toulon? That is the question on everyone’s lips at the moment, as the reigning European champions continue their quest for a third consecutive title. Saturday’s comprehensive 60-22 victory over Ulster saw them become the first team to seal their spot in the quarter finals, despite a flu virus in the squad. Steffon Armitage sent England’s coaches a timely reminder of his abilities in the back row, crossing for a hat trick.
However, the remaining four pools are all still wide open. In particular, Pool Four sees Toulouse, Bath and Glasgow all still in with a shout of winning the group. This is after Toulouse succumbed to their first defeat in this year’s competition, as a Jonathan Joseph-inspired Bath stunned the French side with an impressive bonus point win at the Stade Ernest Wallon, emerging 35-18 winners. Glasgow, meanwhile, fought their way to a 21-10 win over Montpellier at Scotstoun, with Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe scoring the Warriors’ three tries. With just three points separating the three sides, this weekend promises to be a classic.
Saracens and Clermont will go head to head in the final round of the group stage to determine who comes out on top of Pool One, after both sides won their respective matches on Saturday. The Londoners got the better of Munster at Allianz Park by 33-10, a result which, coupled with Clermont’s win at Sale, ensured Munster’s exit from the competition. Billy Vunipola laid claim to the England number eight jersey in Ben Morgan’s absence, with a barnstorming performance for last season’s finalists.
The resurgence of Wasps continues, as their away win at Harlequins ensures they still have a chance of qualifying for the knock out stages. Captain James Haskell put in a monumental performance, making 25 tackles, and quite rightly picking up the man of the match award. However, they will have to beat Leinster to qualify, after the Pro12 champions thumped Castres 50-8, thanks in no small part to 15 points from Ian Madigan.
Finally, Racing Metro and Northampton face off at Franklins Gardens, knowing that a win for either side will send them through as group winners after wins for both sides over Treviso and the Ospreys respectively. However, with both sides currently on 19 points, and three quarter final places up for grabs for the three best runners up, it seems likely that both sides will make it through.
Two sides have qualified for the quarter finals with a round to spare. Gloucester continued their dominance of Pool Five with victory over Oyonnax by 33-3, and have an unassailable lead at the head of the group. They are joined by West Country neighbours Exeter, who secured their quarter final berth with a 33-24 victory away at Connacht, their closest adversaries in Pool Two, with skipper Dean Mumm leading from the front with an interception try.
Elsewhere, the battle for qualifying spots will go down to the wire. Like its sister competition, Pool Four sees three sides battling for one spot, with Edinburgh still in the box seat despite a late 21-19 defeat away to Lyon courtesy of a Fabrice Estebanez drop goal. They host Bordeaux at Murrayfield this weekend, who come off the back of a comfortable win against London Welsh and will be looking to leapfrog both the Scottish side and their French counterparts at the top of the pool.
Newport Gwent Dragons produced arguably the performance of the round in Pool Three, winning 40-29 away to Newcastle Falcons, with young Welsh winger Hallam Amos scoring a brace. In doing so, they jumped ahead of the Falcons in the race for qualification, whilst simultaneously eliminating Stade Francais despite the Parisians’ win over Bucharest. The Dragons host Stade on the final weekend of the group stage, whilst Newcastle face an away trip to the Romanian side.
Wrapping it up is the battle at the top of Pool One, where Cardiff, despite running in 16 tries in their demolition of Rovigo on Friday, will be hoping London Irish slip up against the same opposition if they are to have any chance of progressing. This is after the Exiles squeezed past Grenoble 43-41, maintaining their position at the top of the group. Like much of the rest of European rugby, this weekend is sure to be a cracker!