At first glance this year’s European Champions Cup is not noticeably awash with suspense, with four of the five pool winners plus Clermont Auvergne confirmed a week in advance. Even so, there remain several significant last-eight details to be clarified, with an all-English showdown between Exeter and Saracens in April a genuine possibility.
A humdinger of a Parisian contest between Racing 92 and Munster has also underlined what a serious handful France’s backs could be when England go to Stade de France to kick off their Six Nations campaign in three weeks’ time. For all Munster’s gallant defensive efforts, the firepower of Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas was ultimately too much for them.
Racing 92’s 39-22 bonus-point win – and Munster’s lack of a bonus point – means a Saracens victory at home to Racing on Sunday should ensure they make the knockout stages as one of the three second-placed sides. Lose and Munster could still scrape in arithmetically but Ulster, Saracens and Northampton are probably the most likely to join the five who have already advanced.
That list will be particularly galling for Munster, in danger of not featuring in the last eight for only the fourth time in 22 seasons. They will not be the first side, though, to be dazzled by Racing’s attacking brilliance in their indoor La Défense Arena. There will be no more eye‑catching pass all season than Teddy Iribaren’s reverse long ball to his similarly named colleague Thomas – two potential signings for the Bristol Bears, surely? – before half-time and few centres in the forthcoming Six Nations will be harder to stop than Vakatawa.
If Champions Cup pool results are not an entirely definitive guide to Six Nations form, the sight of one of England’s top sides losing at home to Italian opposition in Europe’s flagship tournament with 10 minutes remaining also offered a reminder that nothing is entirely preordained.
Despite a litany of wayward lineouts and other mistakes, however, the Saints managed to avoid becoming the first Premiership team to be beaten at home by Benetton Treviso for 20 years, courtesy of a barnstorming display from the colossal Taqele Naiyaravoro and a late try from Andy Symons.
It still requires Northampton to win on Saturday in France where there has been one English win in the Champions Cup this season, by Exeter at La Rochelle. A similar challenge awaits Gloucester, whose 29-6 win over Montpellier at Kingsholm, with another impressive contribution from their teenage winger Louis Rees-Zammit, will count for nothing if they cannot overcome Toulouse, who are still unbeaten, on Sunday.
Exeter’s 31-31 draw in Glasgow, however, was good enough to qualify the Chiefs as European pool winners for the first time in their history, with a home quarter-final at Sandy Park on offer if they beat La Rochelle in Devon this Saturday. Top of the Premiership and in charge of their own destiny in Europe, Rob Baxter’s side are now within touching distance of securing the first home draw by an English team other than Saracens for four seasons.
There could also be an all-English quarter-final should the Chiefs finish with a bonus-point flourish against La Rochelle and Saracens beat Racing. Only two weeks ago Saracens went down to the south-west and their domestic punishment for breaching the Premiership salary cap has added further spice to the rivalry. The defending European and English champions, however, will derive plenty of confidence from the resilience they showed in Swansea on Saturday, their depleted side recovering from the sending‑off of the young Welsh prop Rhys Carré after five minutes to win 22-15. A draw against Racing will be enough to see off Munster but Saracens, as always, will aim higher.
Make it through and they will ensure the presence of virtually all the pre-tournament pool favourites who stood out before the competition commenced. Among them, inevitably, are Leinster, convincing if not entirely fluent 42-14 winners over Lyon, who now need to win in Treviso on Saturday to be confirmed as top quarter-final seeds.
The Irish province stand with Toulouse as the only side to have won their first five pool games and they have yet to be beaten in a competitive fixture this season. A quarter-final in Dublin is as daunting an assignment as any in Europe these days, regardless of whether Glasgow, Gloucester or Saints win the scramble for the final qualifying berth.
Glasgow have the most to do, their exciting draw against Exeter not quite enough to transform their prospects. Had Stuart Hogg’s last‑minute penalty attempt from 60 metres not bounced back off the bar, they would have been dead already but there is still a faint glimmer of hope if they overcome Sale at the AJ Bell Stadium and the results in Lyon and Toulouse go their way.