Champions Cup: Five key games that will play a significant role in qualification and seedings

Colin Newboult

The final round of the Champions Cup group stages takes place this weekend, with several teams looking to book their spots in the last-16.

Several have already qualified, including former champions Leinster, Saracens and Exeter Chiefs from Pool A and Toulouse, Leicester Tigers and La Rochelle from Pool B.

The South Africans have also impressed on their competition debut, with the Sharks being assured of their place in the next round and the Bulls and Stormers on the brink of joining them.

However, there is plenty to play for as sides battle to make sure of their place in the next round and also get the best seeding possible, which will help them further down the line.

Here are five significant matches that are worth following closely as the round unfolds over the weekend.

Ulster v Sale Sharks

A couple of teams that reside outside the top-eight, but who still have a good shot of making it into the knockout stages, go head-to-head in Belfast on Saturday. Sale are currently the highest-ranked team of the two, with them in ninth, and a victory at Kingspan Stadium should be enough for them to qualify for the round of 16.

They could still finish in fourth in Pool B should all the results go for them, but realistically the Englishmen are hoping Toulouse and Stormers do the job against Munster and Clermont Auvergne, respectively.

The French-South African encounter actually finishes just before this match kicks off, so Sale and Ulster will know the task at hand. Should Clermont upset the Stormers, it makes qualifying an improbability for the Irish province, while the Sharks’ hopes will be left hanging by a thread, but if, as expected, Auvergne succumb to defeat, this becomes a winner-takes-all clash.

Alex Sanderson’s men are the slight favourites, given their impressive 39-0 dismantling in the reverse fixture, but their form in the Champions Cup has been disappointing since then. Two heavy defeats to Toulouse has seen them drop down the table and put their qualification hopes in serious doubt.

Meanwhile, this weekend’s hosts, who are in the midst of a barren spell under head coach Dan McFarland, have succumbed to three successive losses in the competition, but they were unfortunate at La Rochelle last weekend. That resilient display gives them hope, and with a boisterous Kingspan crowd behind them, Ulster could miraculously reach the last-16.

Bordeaux-Begles v Gloucester

Like Ulster and Sale, these two are currently outside the top-eight of their pool, but again there is hope for both of them. Gloucester – akin to their fellow English side – are in a better position than their opponents as they reside in ninth, level on points with Racing 92.

With the Parisians heading to one of the pre-tournament favourites, Leinster, for their final match of the round-robin phase, a win or draw should take the Cherry and Whites into the knockout stages. However, Bordeaux will fancy their chances, too, despite a disappointing run which has seen them lose all of their games so far.

Begles also have to hope that Quins suffer a heavy defeat at home to the Sharks, or that Lyon don’t rack up a big victory over the Bulls, but ultimately a bonus-point triumph should be enough for UBB. The Frenchmen have not had a good Champions Cup campaign, but they will expect to beat a Gloucester outfit that have not put this competition at the top of their list of priorities.

Harlequins v Sharks

This match has already been touched on, but it has ramifications on both qualification and seeding. For Quins, a bonus-point, be it losing or try-scoring, will effectively see them into the last-16 but they still have an opportunity to finish in the top-four.

Meanwhile, the Sharks have been outstanding in their debut Champions Cup season, beating the Londoners in their first match before earning an impressive double over Bordeaux, and are only just behind Leinster in second position in Pool A.

Given the Irish province’s form, Leo Cullen’s men will easily wrap up first and be the top seed going into the knockout rounds, but the South Africans will also look to secure a home match in the last-16. They are littered with international stars and will seek to keep up their unbeaten record in the tournament at the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday.

Quins are a different proposition at home, but the Durban-based outfit, under the guidance of director of rugby Neil Powell, have looked a changed team over recent weeks. They have an incredible pack, which includes the likes of Springbok behemoths Ox Nche, Eben Etzebeth and captain Siya Kolisi, while the backline is similarly impressive.

In Lukhanyo Am, they have the best centre in the world, but he is ably supported by Jaden Hendrikse, Curwin Bosch, and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, players who will always cause their opponents problems. They could well be in the hunt for the title.

Edinburgh v Saracens

These teams have already qualified, but this is a big game in the context of who plays at home in the next round of the competition. They could both finish in the top-four, but that would rely on Exeter Chiefs not beating Castres at Sandy Park or the Bulls failing to overcome Lyon, so it is another clash where the winner will get the big prize of an encounter on their own ground.

Edinburgh have endured a frustrating season in the United Rugby Championship, but they have impressed in the Champions Cup, as evidenced by their successive victories over Castres. Even in the reverse fixture at Sarries, the Scots were in the game throughout and were perhaps unfortunate not to go away with the win.

Mike Blair’s men will therefore be a significant threat to the three-time European champions, and with the carrot of a home game in the last-16, their tails will very much be up. Saracens have the better quality on paper, but Edinburgh appear to be a very different beast in this competition. It will be a humdinger.

Toulouse v Munster

Possibly the most exciting match of the round pits two sides that have won a combined total of seven titles in the world’s premier club competition. Toulouse will be looking to seal first place in Pool B, having already secured three consecutive victories in the round-robin phase.

They proved too strong for Munster in the opening round before a seemingly tough double-header against the in-form Sale followed. However, they twice swatted away the English team with relative ease, setting themselves up for a shot at a sixth Champions Cup trophy.

Ugo Mola’s men have to be wary, however, as they could finish outside the top-four, which would harm their chances of regaining the crown. The Irish province could conceivably be one of those to move above the Frenchmen should they emerge triumphant at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, albeit it would require a very unlikely bonus-point success.

Graham Rowntree’s side are still in a rebuilding phase, so it would take an all-time great performance to stun the European giants. There are signs of progress under new head coach Rowntree, but this is probably a step too far. At this stage in their development, Munster will simply be content to get through to the last-16 where they can regroup and plan for their next opponents.

READ MORE: Brian O’Driscoll: Three South African teams making the Champions Cup knockouts ‘would speak volumes for their quality.’