Leinster host Toulouse in the clash of Europe’s only four-time champions, with this group and Pool Three looking certain to produce two of the four teams who will have home ties in the quarter-finals in March – everything will be clear after next weekend’s sixth and final pool round. Johnny Sexton is not fit to play for Leinster, but the irrepressible Jordan Larmour is at full-back while the competition’s joint leading try-scorer this season, centre Sofiane Guitoune, is one to watch for resurgent Toulouse.
The English duo here, Bath and Wasps, are goners already, unable to grab one of the quarter-final places on offer to the three best runners-up across the five pools. Nevertheless there are intriguing match-ups at The Rec, as Bath’s Wales No.8 Taulupe Faletau returns to face Wasps’ England forwards Joe Launchbury, Brad Shields and Nathan Hughes.
Going into last night’s Gloucester-Munster fixture at Kingsholm, all four teams had a chance of qualification. But Exeter, who continue to find Europe a tough nut to crack despite their domestic rise, know they can make the last eight by beating Castres at Sandy Park on Sunday and repeating the trick away to Munster next Saturday.
The Chiefs welcome back Jack Nowell after a run-out for the second team, which allows the in-form Joe Simmonds to switch from full-back to fly-half. Exeter’s Australian international scrum-half Nic While expects a “dog fight” from Castres, whose 29-25 win with 14 men for most of the reverse fixture in October put England’s 2017 Premiership champions on the back foot.
Saracens, who could be England’s only quarter-finalists for the second year running (a feat they also managed in 2012), love to indulge in cross-sport consulting and this week they welcomed Burnley FC manager Sean Dyche for a chat about how success one season can be tricky to maintain the next. “He felt some players – even marginally – can take little shortcuts and get distracted by small things,” reported Saracens’ boss Mark McCall.
For Sunday’s trip to pointless Lyon, club captain Brad Barritt misses a third straight match due to concussion, but Billy Vunipola is at No.8 in an almost all-international pack. Glasgow know a qualifying place as runners-up at least is theirs if they keep winning, and Ryan Wilson and Stuart Hogg are among those bearing down on already-eliminated Cardiff Blues.
Read More: Leicester Tigers recover some of their old form but fall short against Racing 92
Scarlets’ joyous run to last season’s semi-finals is just a memory, as Wales have slumped to a familiar state of pool-stage wipeout. By contrast, Ulster and the two-time finalists Racing 92 were the only teams to gain maximum points in rounds three and four last month. Ireland captain Rory Best returns at hooker for Ulster, who also have 21-year-old wing Robert Baloucoune making his first European appearance. Expect emotions to run high at Ravenhill on Saturday afternoon as the much-loved 1999 European Cup-winning squad will be paraded on the pitch, pre-match.
If Racing win, with quality oozing from wings Juan Imhoff and Simon Zebo to wonder lock Leone Nakarawa, they will not only be set for a home quarter-final at their quirky indoor stadium in Paris but also be counted among the short-odds favourites for the whole shooting match. Leicester have rested England’s George Ford, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May in Llanelli, which says a lot about Tigers’ wafer-thin chance of qualification.
Scotland have never provided two of the Champions Cup’s last eight, but the dream is on as Edinburgh chase only the third quarter-final in their history. Head coach Richard Cockerill had a stint working for Saturday’s opponents Toulon and knows what is at stake: “I’d like us to go there and win, because then we’re playing for a home quarter-final when Montpellier come here – and you look at that Montpellier side and your eyes water at what it would cost.”
Newcastle set the pace in this wacky pool before an alarming slump, and now anything could happen including a really outlandish scenario in which Toulon shoot from bottom to top with two bonus-point wins.
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