THE FINISH LINE is in sight. The front-runners and chasing pack have made themselves known in the race for the Heineken Champions Cup knockout stage and round six brings the chance to finish the job.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of outcomes and bonus points, here are some important lines in the rulebook to keep in mind.
Source: Gary Carr/INPHO
The European quarter-finals will be sorted out on a seeded basis with the five pools winners ranked in seeds 1-5 followed by the three best pool runners-up.
For teams locked on the same points tally before kick-off, head-to-head results (match points won over two games) will be the main tie-breaking factor.
For teams who have not played each other yet this season, the tie-breaker will be points difference. If that is tied then it will come down to tries scored and then on into disciplinary action.
Here’s how the seeds stand heading into round 6 (with points followed by points difference and then tries scored in brackets).
1. Saracens: 23 points (+85 points difference, 18 tries scored)
2. Racing 92: 21 (+62, 20)
3. Leinster: 20 (+98, 23)
4. Edinburgh: 19 (+62, 15)
5. Munster: 17 (+64, 15)
6. Glasgow Warriors: 19 (+47, 16)
7. Ulster: 18 (+2, 16)
8. Toulouse: 17 (+10, 14)
9. Montpellier: 16 (+51, 20)
10. Exeter: 13 (+32, 17)
Let’s start with the champions, because they have the most straightforward looking hurdle between them and a home quarter-final and they are the highest Irish seed as things stand.
First and foremost, they must finish the job of locking Toulouse out of top spot in the pool. A draw or two losing bonus points away to Wasps would be enough to do just that — because Toulouse can only get to 22 points and Leinster have a better head-to-head record over their two meetings — but a win would be less nerve-wracking and would also guarantee home advantage in the next round.
Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
If Leo Cullen’s side make it up to 24 points, then they could only be overtaken by a big (36 points + Leinster’s winning margin) win for Edinburgh over Montpellier. And that match is a pool decider of its own.
The equation is simple enough for Munster too, but the prospect of a home quarter-final is not quite as bright in Pool 2 due to the leading contenders’ opening round draw and a relative lack of bonus points.
To top the pool and make the knockout stage, Munster need only a draw or two losing bonus points at home against Exeter. One losing bonus point will only be enough if the southern province stop the Chiefs winning with four tries. An Exeter win by more than seven points would be enough for the Premiership leaders to top the table and knock Munster out of Europe as they would then have a better head-to-head record.
Munster’s fate is out of their hands when it comes to a home quarter-final, but it is possible if results in Pools 1 or 5 go their way.
Pool 1 could resolve in Munster’s favour if Leinster slip up away to Wasps and Toulouse take over top spot. Munster and Toulouse head into the final round with 17 points apiece, but Johann van Graan’s men have a better points difference than the four-time champions. So if they can match Toulouse’s winning margin in round six, they will earn a higher seed.
Pool 5 will leave the door ajar for Munster if Edinburgh draw or lose against Montpellier as neither side would then be able to better a tally of 21 points, which Munster could surpass with a bonus point win. If Munster and Montpellier were both to finish up on 21 points, then the southern province have an 11-point head-start in points difference which could prove telling.
Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Now we’re deep into the reeds of ifs and buts. Dan McFarland’s men are still in with a shot of winning Pool 4 if Scarlets can do them a massive favour by beating Racing in Paris. Should Racing claim as much as a losing bonus point (LBP), Ulster would need a winning one.
Failing that, though, a runners-up slot is well within their grasp.
Currently, the northern province are second in the running for the three best runners-up berths in the last eight.
Leading the way are Glasgow (who face already-qualified Saracens next up) on 19 points and on their heels are Toulouse (at home to Bath), 17 points. Basically, it’s bad news for Ulster if these sides manage to bolt to the top of their pool as it will relegate a team with an already higher points tally into their realm.
Head coach McFarland has already said he is going to Leicester targeting a win on Saturday and that would certainly be enough to hold onto a place in the top eight.
Entering the final round with a points difference of only +2, Ulster won’t want to find themselves caught up in a deadlock with any rival, and even an LBP at Welford Road will leave them sweating results elsewhere. Of particular interest will be the decider in Pool 5 between Edinburgh and Montpellier. The Scottish side already have 19 points on the board and a healthy +62 points difference, so if they lose their grasp on top spot then it’s entirely possible that Ulster would be edged out.
If Ulster cannot find a way to win in Leicester, then they must keep fingers crossed that two of Munster, Edinburgh and Bath take a win.
Potential Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals:
Saracens (1) v Glasgow Warriors (8)Racing 92 (2) v Toulouse (7)Leinster (3) v Ulster (6)Edinburgh (4) v Munster (5)
And in the Challenge Cup…
Connacht remain second in their Challenge Cup pool despite being level on 17 points with leaders Sale Sharks (due to the English side’s better head-to-head performance).
Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
Andy Friend’s side will secure top spot in the pool if they can outperform the Sharks in round 6 (i.e. win with a bonus point and Sale win without one, or win while Sale fail to win).
Failing that, it’s a runners-up berth and an away quarter-final for them to target. We will work on an assumption that Bristol Bears will beat Enisei STM at home with a bonus, but Connacht will remain on course for the quarters as long as they match or better Benetton’s (who are away to Grenoble) result. A loss without a bonus point could also leave them open to an unlikely surge from Ospreys.
Potential Challenge Cup quarter-finals:
Clermont Auvergne (1) v Connacht (8)La Rochelle (2) v Northampton (7)Sale Sharks (3) v Bristol (6)Harlequins (4) v Worcester (5)
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