Power Ranking Europe's Top 10 Clubs: Sarries Sunk by Toulouse
The last eight in the Heineken Cup is now taking shape with just one round of pool matches remaining.
The knockout stages are promising to throw up some fascinating fixtures as the qualified sides start jockeying for home advantage in the quarter-finals.
That’s the beauty of this competition, there is hardly a dead game with just one weekend left. Those already qualified need to make sure they are on home turf, while those with work to do to make the next stage have to throw the kitchen sink at their final game.
Here’s how we stand with one week to go, taking into account the sides already qualified and largely ranking those higher than those still in need of points to make it, and those out of the picture.
10. (10 Last Week) Castres, Top 14
Castres looked like they were going to upset Leinster for all of 20 minutes, but they were overwhelmed by the Irishmen in the end.
Their 29-22 defeat ended their hopes of qualification for the knockout stages and their place in this top 10 will now come under serious threat from fellow Top 14 title challengers Stade Francais.
9. (6) Northampton, Premiership
The Saints piled on the misery in Europe for the Ospreys with a 29-17 win that keeps them alive, but only just.
Leinster’s win in France means Jim Mallinder’s men can only hope the hapless Ospreys pull off a miracle in Dublin next week if they are to have a hope of topping the pool.
In reality, a bonus point win over Castres will still only leave them on 18 points, which won’t be enough for a best runner’s up place.
8. (5) Ulster, PRO12
Ulster couldn’t manage a four-try bonus point in their 27-16 win over Montpellier, but they remain two points clear at the top of Pool 5.
They need to draw with or beat Leicester to ensure they are No. 1 seed going into the quarter-finals.
But defeat could see them slip to best runner up status and facing a tricky road trip.
Welford Road will stage a cracker of a finale this section.
7. (9) Leicester, Premiership
The Tigers did as required against Treviso with a four-try bonus point win that sets up their showdown with Ulster.
Miles Benjamin added two more tries to his season’s tally as a gentle reminder to the England selectors who overlooked him earlier in the week.
With a full house to roar them on next week, perhaps the smart money has shifted to the Tigers as favourites for this pool.
6. (1) Saracens, Premiership
Saracens have to hope their probable second place in the group will yield them enough points to qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
They will be hugely frustrated that, in two games against Toulouse, they have failed to find a way round the monstrous French pack.
It’s proof that the Heineken Cup requires another level of performance to the Premiership.
And it is deeply troubling for English rugby that players might not be exposed to that level after this season.
5. (7) Munster, PRO12
Munster made the last eight of the Heineken Cup once again with a 20-7 win over Gloucester at Kingsholm.
Paul O’Connell took the plaudits from both coaches for his display.
With O’Connell in this sort of form, Munster have one of Europe’s most inspirational characters in their ranks, and will give anyone they face in the last eight a fierce run for their money.
4. (4) Leinster, PRO12
Leinster have an impressive back catalogue of away wins against top French sides, and added another one last weekend.
This one was pulled out of the fire, Matt O’Connor’s side recovering from 14-0 down to win 29-22 at Castres.
Jimmy Gopperth was the star of the show with two tries and 11 points from the boot.
The result means Leinster need a single point from their home clash with the Ospreys next weekend to ensure a spot in the last eight.
3. (8) Toulon, Top 14
Toulon turned on the power to take Cardiff apart in the second half as they booked a slot in the quarter-finals.
The Blues were still in the contest at half time, but as Toulon’s forwards took control, the yellow cards began to flow for Cardiff and three penalty tries blew the score out to 43-20.
Despite Bernard Laporte's reported unhappiness, this is a group of players capable of winning this tournament again.
2. (2) Clermont Auvergne, Top 14
The well-worn cliché about champion teams is they always find a way to win.
Against a resurgent, motivated Harlequins at The Stoop, Clermont did just that.
Coming back from a 13-3 deficit, Clermont had Sitiveni Sivivatu’s 72nd minute try to thank for drawing them level, and the cool head of Brock James for knocking over the penalty that brought them the win.
They became the first side into the last eight and you have to fancy them to return to the final this year.
1. (3) Toulouse, Top14
The Four-time champions were at their belligerent best against Saracens, smashing them back in the tackle and dominating the breakdown.
Thierry Dusautoir was a thorn in Saracens’ side all day, and the Toulouse pack got the better of Saracens’ eight in every department, particularly in the power game head to head between No. 8s Louis Picamoles and Billy Vunipola.
Toulouse are the best side in Europe at strangling opponents with their sheer physicality, and they displayed that expertly to reach the quarter-finals, where they will have a home draw unless something goes seriously wrong for them next week against whipping boys Zebre.