The launch of the new European Champions Cup brought with it a promise of more competitive groups. Fewer rubbish teams and more talent concentrated into five pools; it would be harder to qualify and more exciting. We were sceptical, but said we would return before the final round of matches and review. So here we are.
To be fair to the Champions Cup, it has more or less made good on its promise. Whether this is by accident or design is hard to parse, but for sure this is the most interesting round six for a good few years; there are plenty of games with a lot at stake and a less than certain outcome. The scrap for the last couple of runners-up places is going to be especially fraught, and could go down to the final minutes of the weekend, which looks set to provide drama by the bucketful.
Things get off to a pretty good start with Wasps vs. Leinster, which has the look of the game of the weekend. An up-and-coming team at home to an established one, with qualification at stake. James Haskell vs. Jamie Heaslip in a battle of the metro men. Forget awesome power and thudding collisions, feel the hipster sandwiches and post-match grooming discussions. It’s set to be a cracker.
Next, Northampton play Racing Metro, and while both should qualify, the winner tops the pool and wins a home quarter-final. Later that evening, Ulster play Leicester. The Nordies are out but they will put it up to Leicester, who need a five-pointer to have any chance at all of going through. The two have had some great ding-dongs in recent years, and this fixture offers a chance for Ulster to salvage something from what has been a miserable campaign.
Sunday afternoon brings us to Pool Four, where any one or two of Bath, Toulouse and Glasgow can go through. Bath vs. Glasgow sees two of the most enterprising teams in the tournament go up against one another. Slammin’ Sam can’t get into the Bath team, and anyone who saw Jonathan Joseph and Kyle Eastmond last week will know why. If Bath win, that takes them to 19 points, and probable qualification. Finally, Clermont take on Saracens. In spite of a decent campaign, Saracens are in a pickle and are odds against to qualify. They’ve already beaten Clermont, did the double over Sale, but may rue a lack of bonus points. They failed to get anything from Thomond Park and should have knocked Sale for four tries at least once, and butchered umpteen opportunities to get a fourth try against Munster last weekend. Even a losing bonus point in Clermont – a fine achievement if you can do it – might not be good enough. They’ll have the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to get and there’s every chance the outcome to be in the balance as the match clock ticks over into the red.
So, how has it all come to pass? None of the factors that were trumped up in the fractious birth of the new format have been relevant. Premiership sides’ supposed battle against the threat of relegation has been non-existent thanks to Bucaresti Welsh, while the usual suspects in the Pro 12 miraculously find themselves on course for qualification again next season without having to divest huge resources to the league campaign.
What has been notable is that the Pro12 teams have had a particularly rubbish campaign. The most likely scenario is that just one of their number, Leinster, will qualify, and that may not even come to pass. Ospreys and Glasgow have still to find a way of bringing their league form to bear against the more physical English and French sides, while the challenge of Ulster and Munster, serial qualifiers over the last few years, has been particularly hopeless this time around for various reasons.
Back in our original analysis, we implored the middle-ranking sides to step up to the mark and put it up to the established teams. The English sides have achieved this more than any other: all of Wasps, Harlequins and Bath have had a bearing on the tournament. Bath have been revelatory, and look set to qualify. Wasps also have a great chance, meaning two teams who lost their first two games might qualify – a first (and second) by our reckoning. Quins dropped the ball in round five, but remain in the hunt, just about. Even Sale, marooned on two points, have been somewhat unlucky in their three home games and could have won all of them. For all the talk of sugar-daddies and bully-boy tactics, many observers have noted that this year’s Aviva Premiership is faster paced and more watchable than previous vintages, with a greater emphasis on running and passing, and less on boshing and kicking. Less Oooooooooohhh! and more Aaaaaaaaaaaahhh! Bath, Northampton, Harlequins and Wasps are all playing with a degree of width and purpose in attack. Even Saracens have widened their game. It looks to be paying dividends on the European stage.
Worth noting as well that the qualification criteria have changed – points obviously first, then results & points difference in the pool, then it’s points difference for the runners up, and not tries – because, it’s y’know, what the fans want. It’s pretty correlated anyway – except for Ulster, who have the 6th best try count and the 16th best points difference. Pity they are gone. Anyroads – here’s the Cordite Predictions for the knockout seedings:
- Northampton (23)
- Toulon (22) – better points difference
- Clermont (22)
- Bath (20) – win pool due to better points difference with Toulouse, and better tournament points difference than Wasps
- Wasps (20)
- Toulouse (20)
- Racing Metro (19) – better points difference than Leinster
- Leinster (19)
Two all-French quarter finals, and all-English and a trip to Northampton. In truth, Leinster would take that ahead of trips to Toulon or Clermont, but we implore them to go to Wasps and win: for the fans, for Ireland, for the Pro12 and for the foreign markets which are more important than ever nowadays.