By Phil Rice
As so often in the past, the penultimate stage of the European Champions Cup proved to be decisive for a number of teams.
Leinster were the only successful Irish side as they hammered Lyon at the RDS and now look likely to be seeded for a home quarter-final.
Munster fought bravely but eventually succumbed to a powerful Racing side. Ulster lost to Clermont, but victory on Saturday at home to Bath will see them safely through to the knockout stages.
Injury-hit Connacht bravely fought against the mighty Toulouse, but in the end had to concede defeat to the French team.
With one round of games to go, Leinster have 24 points which is two more than any other team.
Therefore victory away to Italian side Benetton on Saturday will put them as number one seeds for the quarter-finals.
Nobody will relish a visit to the Aviva Stadium to take on a side that has yet to lose a match this season.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) January 13, 2020
Their 42-14 win over Lyon was as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests, with their back row particularly impressive.
It was “job done” for Leinster head coach Leo Cullen, who not surprisingly was “pretty pleased” with his side’s performance and the result.
Two tries from their number 8 Max Deegan, who was named man of the match, was almost matched by flanker Josh van der Flier, but his second touchdown was disallowed for a marginal forward pass.
Despite blazing a trail in the competition, Deegan says they’ll have little trouble getting motivated for Saturday’s trip to Benetton.
“We’ve been looking for top seed in the competition since day one. If we wanted it we knew we were going to have to win every game and we’ll be looking to do the same next week,” he said.
💥 Another moment of magic from Andrew Conway yesterday saw the winger score his 42nd Munster try and move up to third in the list of top try-scorers for the province ahead of @AnthonyHorgan.#R92vMUN #SUAF 🔴 pic.twitter.com/7zaPzbuKly
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) January 13, 2020
Leinster have three candidates for the Irish number 8 shirt with the recovering injury victim Jack Conan having been joined by Caelan Doris and Max Deegan.
Irish incumbent, CJ Stander, will be anxiously waiting for Andy Farrell’s first team selection.
Munster are now unlikely to make the quarter-finals for the first time in four years. They led Racing 92 for much of the game, but three late tries from the impressive French outfit eventually wrested the game from Johann van Graan’s side.
Munster still have a theoretical chance of making the knockout stages, but a series of unlikely results this week would have to go their way.
Peter O’Mahony is another Irish player who will be nervously awaiting the Irish coach’s announcement next week.
He had a fine game last weekend but Rhys Ruddock has been exceptional this season and this looks like being another marginal decision.
Ulster also led Clermont for much of the game but ran out energy and luck in the final quarter, and the battle-hardened Frenchmen used all their European experience to edge past Dan McFarland’s team.
There has been a marked improvement in Ulster’s form this season and they are still likely to reach the play-offs, assuming they can overcome an already eliminated Bath in Belfast.
Recently recruited props Jack McGrath and Marty Moore have given them a strong base from which to build a possession game, and the backs have benefitted from getting go-forward ball.
Stuart McCloskey, in particular, has shown some powerful running in midfield.
Bath may have lost all five of their games but Ulster captain Iain Henderson has warned that his side can take nothing for granted against a side which sit sixth in the Premiership table.
“We have to be as switched on as we can be, and we can’t underestimate them,” he said. “It’s something that we will have to be very wary of.”
He added: “They are out of the tournament now, but that makes them more dangerous,” added Henderson.
“We can’t underestimate what they can bring across. They have good squad strength and depth.”
So our Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final fate all comes down to Saturday’s game against Bath!
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) January 12, 2020
Ulster are unlikely to secure a home last eight tie – only victory over Bath coupled with Clermont slipping up against Quins will produce that outome – but as they showed against Leinster away from home in last season’s quarter-final they can still be a real handful, even away from the Kingspan.
Connacht will now concentrate on the Pro14 in an effort to qualify for next year’s Champions Cup. They have been unlucky with a lengthy injury list this season.
Coach Andy Friend was pleased with his side’s spirited attitude against Toulouse last weekend, but is desperately hoping to soon have some of his front-line players back from the physio’s attentions.