Marching to May: The European Rugby Elite

Date published: December 9 2016

The European Rugby Champions Cup kicks off again on 9 December when Pool 4 teams Northampton and Leinster square up. The other 18 clubs are in action over the following two days as the competition really takes shape. With round four also being played a week before Christmas, by the time rugby fans tuck into their turkey they’ll have a pretty good idea of whether they should be making arrangements for the quarter-finals next March. Here’s your chance to take a look at a guide to the five pools so far and each club’s chances of finishing as group winners or one of the three strongest runners-up.

Pool 1 – Glasgow, Leicester, Munster, Racing 92

2016 finalists Racing were the pre-tournament favourites to top Pool 1, but they sit bottom after their opening 27-17 defeat at Leicester. The French team, and Irish outfit Munster, have only played once due to their clash in October being postponed after the death of Munster head coach Anthony Foley. That game is rescheduled for 7 January. Racing fly-half Dan Carter will hope to be among the points as Racing welcome Glasgow Warriors to the Stade Yves-du-Manoir. Glasgow have so far lost 38-17 to Munster and trounced The Tigers 42-13. Leicester need to repair their -19 points difference in their trip to Munster – a try bonus point would be very welcome in this tight-looking Pool.

Pool 2 – Connacht, Toulouse, Wasps, Zebre

Wasps and Toulouse were expected to contest the top two slots in this group, but Toulouse have it all to do after a 20-20 draw with Wasps and an agonising 23-21 defeat at Connacht left them with three points and lying in third place. The four times European champions are at bottom club Zebre next, so that will be a routine win and great kicking practice for Luke McAlister. It’s a tight one to predict the outcome of a tasty tussle between PRO12 champs Connacht and Wasps, with the winner topping Pool 2 going into the round 4 games.

Pool 3 – Sale, Saracens, Scarlets, Toulon

Reigning European champions Saracens set the tone for Pool 3 with their 31-23 victory at fellow Euro heavyweights Toulon on match day 2. That was Sarries’ second win, after crushing Scarlets 44-26, and they can expect another bonus point after their clash with group whipping boys Sale on 10 December. Second-placed Toulon need a good showing against Scarlets to keep them on track to finish as one of the best group runners-up. Winger Bryan Habana, who’s currently having a mixed time with South Africa, is the man to watch in that one.

Pool 4 – Castres, Leinster, Montpellier, Northampton

Pool 4 is very tight, with each team having won and lost each of their first two games. Leinster occupy top spot with six points thanks to a try and losing bonus. The 2012 champions should be too strong for Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, who are struggling for form in Europe and the Premiership and will be without banned flanker Calum Clark. Castres and Montpellier both have a strong chance of reaching the knockout phase and the winner of their match-up at the Altrad Stadium will be in the box seat.

Pool 5 – Bordeaux-Begles, Clermont Auvergne, Exeter, Ulster   

Only Wasps (14) have scored more tries than Pool 5 leaders Clermont with 11. Their two wins from two, against Bordeaux and Exeter, sees them nicely perched to progress and they won’t hold back at Ulster on 10 December. France centre Wesley Fofana already has three tries and will take some stopping at The Kingspan Stadium. Bordeaux need a win at bottom club Exeter to keep pace with their French rivals, but Exeter recently pulled off a big win at Newcastle to end a three-game winless run in the Aviva Premiership.

With the European Rugby Champions Cup final being staged at Edinburgh’s magnificent Murrayfield Stadium on 13 May, the scramble to be in the knockout rounds will be intense by the end of 2016. Connacht, Saracens and Clermont look to be one step ahead of the rest already, with Wasps and Leinster flexing their Euro muscles too. It’s a battle you won’t want to take your eyes off.