Much To Play For As Heineken Champions Cup Goes Into Third Round


There will be desperation for some and concern about seedings for others so everyone has much to play for as the Heineken Champions Cup pool phase goes into the third round this weekend.

Whereas some teams are on the cusp of qualifying for the round of 16, and an elite few may even feel quite secure that they have pretty much already done so, there are still seedings on the line. The way the competition works, the top eight teams in each pool advance, with the first-placed team in Pool A facing the last-placed team in Pool B, and vice-versa.

The way it stands at the moment, Pool A leaders Leinster would advance to a round of 16 tie against Clermont-Auvergne, with LaRochelle playing against Gloucester. However, the Pool phase is only half completed and much can happen in these remaining two weeks.

Ulster will be pleased that is the case, for they are currently well outside of round of 16 qualifications, listing at 10th in Pool B, and will be in a desperate mood as one more defeat will end their challenge to advance to the play-off phase of a competition they made an emotional exit from in a tight game against Toulouse last season.

It is going to be a massive challenge for Ulster though, for their third-round game is the return clash with LaRochelle, at LaRochelle.

There was some controversy around the first-round game, which much to the chagrin of Ulster coach Dan McFarland, was switched from Kingspan Stadium to the more neutral Aviva Stadium, behind closed doors, because of an iced-up pitch at the Ravenhill venue.

LaRochelle won that match 36-29, which sounds close enough, but if you look at the fine print you will note that the French team was leading 29-0 at halftime. So was that a case of the tournament champions taking their foot off the accelerator, or was it a sign of resurgence from Ulster? The Belfast team’s recent results would suggest the former, for they have been slipping in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship too, and lost late against Benetton last week.

To compound matters for Ulster, they’ve lost a few players to injury, with prop Marty Moore facing a lengthy period of rehabilitation after tearing the ACL on his right knee in the recent close defeat in the URC derby against Munster. Also out this week are wing Rob Baloucoune (hamstring) and Sean Reffell (ankle). Both those players were injured in last week’s URC loss in Treviso.

So Ulster is up against it, but McFarland says his team likes pitting itself against the best. “They are probably one of the top two teams in Europe, so it’s a big challenge to test yourself against the very best and is something we will look forward to this week,” said the Ulster coach.

McFarland didn’t say who the other member of his top two is, but it might well be his team’s arch-rivals from Dublin, Leinster, who have 10 points after both games and are at top of Pool A. But although you’d say that qualification for the round of 16 is almost certain for Leinster, the seeding issue makes a win imperative away at Gloucester this weekend as Exeter Chiefs have the same number of log points as them and are only second to Leinster in Pool A because of points difference.

The Chiefs head to South Africa this weekend to play the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus and have made it clear they want the top seeding, so that can be seen as a challenge thrown down to Leinster, who lost in dramatic fashion to a last-gasp LaRochelle score in the 2021/2022 final.

Of the URC teams looking for qualification, the three South African teams are all well placed if they win this weekend, with the Cell C Sharks hosting their return game against Bordeaux Begles while the DHL Stormers are away against a London Irish team that was in a feisty mood and came back strongly at them in the second half of the first round game in Cape Town.

One of the most interesting games, certainly if you look at the form of the one and the standing and reputation of the other, is the clash between the Welsh representative in the Champions Cup, the Ospreys, and Montpellier. The Ospreys scored a great upset win away at Montpellier in the first round and with no wins from two starts, the French champions are under pressure to reverse that result this time. Montpellier is currently ninth on the Pool B log, just ahead of Ulster.

Munster is enjoying a resurgence after a difficult start to the season and life under new coach Graham Rowntree and will have that resurgence tested when they host Northampton Saints, a team they hung on against as they produced a tenacious performance in winning on English soil in the away clash.

Munster is level with the Stormers on points, though trailing in sixth position to the Cape team’s fifth in Pool B on points differential (a narrow margin of four), and can be almost assured of qualification for the round of 16 if they win. Another URC team, Edinburgh, are on the cusp of the last 16 qualification and should feel quite secure if they beat Castres away on Sunday.

One of the big match-ups of the weekend is Toulouse, second in Pool B, travelling to fourth-placed Sale Sharks on Saturday.

Weekend Heineken Champions Cup fixtures

Clermont-Auvergne v Leicester Tigers (Friday, 22.00)
Gloucester v Leinster (Saturday, 15.00)
Sale Sharks v Toulouse (Saturday, 15.00)
Cell C Sharks v Bordeaux-Begles (Saturday, 17.15)
Munster v Northampton Saints (Saturday, 17.15)
LaRochelle v Ulster (Saturday, 19.30)
Vodacom Bulls v Exeter Chiefs (Saturday, 19.30)
Ospreys v Montpellier (Saturday, 22.00)
Saracens v Lyon (Saturday, 22.00)
Castres v Edinburgh (Sunday, 15.00)
London Irish v DHL Stormers (Sunday, 15.00)
Racing 92 v Harlequins (Sunday, 17.15)