European Cup: Road to the play-offs
Tue, 07 Jan 2014 07:33
Pool by pool
Qualification for the knockout stage of Europe's premier club tournament is on the line once again as the tension-packed Rounds Five and Six of the European Cup assume centre stage in the coming fortnight.
Once the drama and number-crunching conclude, six pool winners and the two best pool runners-up will have booked prized spots in the European Cup quarterfinals, while the three next best pool runners-up will extend their season in Europe by qualifying for the quarterfinals of the Challenge Cup.
Since 2010 when Cardiff Blues became the first European Cup qualifier to win the Challenge Cup, Biarritz Olympique in 2012, and Leinster Rugby, last season, have also triumphed via the same route.
Once the pool stages of both ERC tournaments are completed, all roads will lead to the Cardiff 2014 finals with the European Cup decider going ahead at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, May 24 the day after the Challenge Cup final kicks off Europe's big club weekend at the Cardiff Arms Park on Friday, May 23.
With heavyweight Anglo-French clashes between Toulouse and Saracens, and Harlequins and ASM Clermont Auvergne, to savour in Round Five, the 35,624-capacity Allianz Riviera in Nice will become the 104th venue to stage a European Cup fixture when reigning champions, Toulon, host Cardiff Blues in a potentially decisive game at the top of Pool Two.
Ulster, currently the only unbeaten club in the tournament, are probably not too mindful of the haunting statistic that no club which has come through the pool stage with six wins has gone on to win the trophy in the same season.
Defeating Montpellier at Ravenhill in Round Five and setting up a possible pool decider with Leicester Tigers in Round Six is more on the 1999 champions' agenda at the moment.
Pool by pool!
Qualification places are still very much on the line going into Round Five with Leinster leading the way by four points from Northampton Saints. If Leinster manage to pull a result out of the fire in Castres, and if Northampton happen to be turned over by Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium, then Leinster will be guaranteed a place in the last eight. But they are big ifs …
The much-anticipated clash of Toulon and Cardiff at the Allianz Riviera in Nice – the 104th venue to stage a European Cup game – has all the makings of a pool decider. A win for Toulon would go a long way to sealing a quarter-final spot, but Cardiff are equipped to cause an upset. Exeter and Glasgow could have a best runners-up spot in their sights.
The reverberations of Sunday's clash between Toulouse and Saracens at Stade Ernest Wallon will be felt throughout European rugby. With both clubs deadlocked on 15 points, the winner will be set fair for the knockout stage. Connacht, who host Zebre, are still in the shake-up.
Harlequins' battle for qualification continues when they meet pool leaders Clermont at the Twickenham Stoop. Last season's beaten finalists are four points clear, and a win will send them through to the quarter-finals. However, a Quins victory will leave qualification hanging in the balance for Round Six.
Ulster will look to preserve the only unbeaten record in the tournament with a win over Montpellier at Ravenhill while Leicester face a tricky assignment in Treviso. Wins for the leading two will set up what promises to be a classic European showdown at Welford Road in Round Six.
Munster will be looking good for qualification if they turn Gloucester over at Kingsholm, but Gloucester simply have to win to stay in the race. Not one for the faint-hearted! Edinburgh will also need to beat Perpignan to keep their hopes alive.
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