The penultimate round of the Heineken pool stage has sorted out the weak from the champs and we now have a much clearer view of who will contest the quarter finals – and as importantly who will not.
Northampton won 29 – 17 at the Ospreys but their failure to pick up a bonus point will almost certainly force their European ambitions in the direction of the Amlin Cup. A five pointer against Castres would give them hope – but it would need other unlikely results to go their way for them to qualify. Leinster did well to take Castres home record away from them and only need to win or draw against the Ospreys at home to guarantee a place in the knock-out stages.
The Saints did well to hold off the Ospreys and will be glad they signed George North – he scored a long distance try and made ground every time he was in possession.
Castres started at a gallop to lead 14 – 0 and looked to be blasting the group wide open but Leinster are a major force in European rugby and fought back for a famous away win by 29 – 22.
Having been held to 15 – 13 at the break Toulon’s forward power overcame Cardiff Blues in a second half which included 3 penalty tries to add to david Smith’s touchdown and to give Toulon all five points and a place in the quarter finals.
Technically Cardiff like Northampton could still make it as the second runner up but it is highly improbable.
In the other game Glasgow got an impressive away win against a surprisingly unimpressive Exeter Chiefs. Both sides were already out of contention before the kick-off at Sandy Park.
Toulouse won the big match against Saracens 21 – 11 with Doussain kicking 7 penalties and the French side always looked the likely winners despite going behind to an early Chris Ashton try.
Stuart Lancaster will want Ashton to do better in defence – especially if he comes up against the monster that is George North.
Connacht just about kept their slim hopes alive with a win 20 – 3 at Zebre but will regret not getting the bonus point that would have put their destiny in their own hands.
The reality is that both Toulouse and Saracens will emerge from the group at the end of next weekend.
Harlequins came oh so close to beating Clermont at the Stoop and led until well into the last ten minutes. But Clermont are one of the favourites for the competition and secured the win with a try by the irrepressible Sitiveni Sivivatu and a penalty by Brock James to win 16 – 13.
Clermont can’t be caught and go into the quarter final draw.
Scarlets beat Racing for a good win in a game that wasn’t meaningful in the context of the competition
As predicted this group will go down to the wire with Ulster away to Leicester next week. Both teams have already qualified – the prize for the winners is a home draw.
Leicester duly picked up all 5 points away to Treviso – but will have given their travelling supporters a nervous time – the Italians were 13 – 8 ahead at the break and it wasn’t until Miles Benjamin’s second try in the 67th minute that they got that all – important bonus point.
Ulster beat Montpellier but only managed the three tries that restricted them to 4 points.
Watch out for fireworks at Welford road on Saturday evening!
Munster secured top spot with a fine away win at Gloucester by 20 – 10. The home side played better than they have done in the Premiership this season but they let themselves down with sloppy passing when they could have put the Irishmen under real pressure. Charlie Sharples lived up to his name with a sizzling try but Freddie Burns seems to lack confidence at the moment and you can see why he is now behind George Ford in Stuart Lancaster’s rankings.
Edinburgh did well to ease past Perpignan by 27 – 16 and will be bolstered for next season by their South African recruits – although the existence of a European tournament is still to be determined.
They will have their hands full next week at Thomond Park where Munster will be seeking to stay home for the quarter final.
Many of the last 8 places have been secured – and there is unlikely to be a twist next weekend. I’ll be making predictions later in the week and looking at how it would take a combination of unexpected results to exclude one of the favourites.