This past weekend of rugby brought the Heineken Champions Cup to the halfway mark of the pool stage and helped dispel plenty of pre-tournament predictions on who might make the knockout rounds.
There have been surprise packages, such as the undefeated Toulouse, whilst there have also been significant disappointments, such as the winless Wasps.
At this point, we now have a clearer view of how each pool is likely to turn out and what it could mean for the quarter-finals, where a home draw can be the difference-maker in a run all the way to the final, whilst an away fixture can mean an early exit.
In Pool 1, Toulouse have been composed and efficient in shooting into top spot with three wins and 12 points from their opening three games. They’ve gone to Bath and Wasps and won, as well as seeing off the reigning European champions, Leinster, at Stade Ernest Wallon. The only thing working against them is that they haven’t managed to secure a try bonus point in any of the three games, which means that Leinster sit just two points behind them, despite having lost in Toulouse.
Given that the two sides will meet in Dublin in January, the advantage still looks to be with Leinster, despite Toulouse’s impressive start to the campaign. With both Bath and Wasps having to make the trip to the south-west of France, the Top 14 side are in excellent position to grab a best runners-up spot, however, potentially even the best of the three qualifying slots, meaning they could avoid the overall number one or two seed.
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On to Pool 2 and Munster have taken control of the group, brushing aside Castres this past weekend, drawing away at Exeter Chiefs and beating Gloucester at Thomond Park. The trip to Stade Pierre Fabre will prove a much larger challenge for Munster than their home defeat of Castres, but it is another winnable game, as is the home tie with Exeter, with the side from Devon looking out of sorts.
The key clash in Pool 2 comes on January 11th, when Gloucester host Munster at Kingsholm. The Cherry and Whites are just three points behind Munster and having beaten Exeter away this past weekend, look like they can make a real push for qualification, especially if they can consolidate that win with another one this weekend, this time at home.
In Pool 3, there have been no surprises as Saracens have taken control, winning all three games and picking up two bonus points. There’s a good chance they sweep all six games, but even if they don’t, they are red-hot favourites to top the group and the more interesting question will be can Glasgow Warriors do enough to wrap up a best runners-up spot.
Glasgow’s excellent win in Lyon at the weekend has taken them to 10 points and, if both sides maintain their current form, you would expect no less than a further four points at Scotstoun in Round 4. A trip to Allianz Park in January is unlikely to offer much, but a home tie against the Cardiff Blues could add another four or five points to the tally. If the Warriors can finish with 18-20 points, they should make the quarter-finals.
Pool 4 is becoming increasingly straightforward, too, with Racing 92 offering a similar dominance to Saracens, having won three games, with two also offering up bonus points. Their run-in is slightly harder than Saracens, with away trips to Welford Road and the Kingspan, but there will be little more than pride for the Scarlets to play for in Paris in Round 6.
At nine points, Ulster are in the mix for a best runners-up spot, although the likes of Toulouse and Glasgow are in stronger positions. The province could find themselves going up against the loser of the Gloucester vs Munster game and one of Newcastle Falcons or Edinburgh, for that final spot.
Speaking of Edinburgh, they took control of Pool 5 on Friday evening, besting a depleted and rotated Newcastle side. That said, Newcastle can regain control of the group this weekend at Kingston Park, if they bring back their key players and overcome the challenge of the Scottish side. Can Newcastle get enough bodies back at tighthead in time, though?
Falcons will fancy their chances against Toulon at Kingston Park in January, but even with Montpellier looking out of sorts, a win away at the GGL Stadium seems a big ask for the Premiership side, especially with one eye on the relegation battle in their domestic competition. Edinburgh also face off against those two French sides in January, but their collection of three bonus points in their opening three games just gives them the edge over Newcastle at this point.
Saracens (1st) vs Gloucester (8th)
Leinster (2nd) vs Glasgow Warriors (7th)
Racing 92 (3rd) vs Toulouse (6th)
Munster (4th) vs Edinburgh (5th)
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