The Champions Cup pool stages officially came to a close on Sunday. Four-time champions Toulouse fought off a late fightback from last season’s Pro 12 champions Connacht, while Wasps wrapped up a bonus point victory over a spirited Zebre.
Toulouse and Wasps will now join Clermont, Saracens, Leinster, Munster, Glasgow and Toulon in the knockout stages as the competition intensifies ahead of the quarter-finals.
The tournament will now take a two month break and will resume at the end of March, after the Six Nations concludes, and while a lot will happen between now and then with regards to player availability and form, in the meantime we’ve decided to rank the top eight teams as another Champions Cup pool stage comes to an end.
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[tie_slide] 8. Toulouse
Toulouse were exceptional against Connacht in the first-half decimating last year’s Pro 12 champions with some brilliant passages of play in the backline coupled with sheer ruthlessness in the forwards.
Yoann Huget’s return to fullback paid huge dividends as he set up Arthur Bonneval with a searing break through the middle of the Connacht defence, but Toulouse also showed they could win the battle up front as flanker Joe Tekori bounced his way over from close range.
However, just as in the Connacht defeat in Galway and the Wasps defeat in Coventry, Toulouse once again very nearly crumbled towards the end and it’s a trait that you do not want associated with your side in the knockout stages, especially with a trip to Thomond Park on the horizon.
The three-time Champions saved their best performance of the pool stage for their finale with Saracens in what really was a cracking game of rugby.
After stuttering their way past Sale the week before, Toulon looked a lot more reassured against Saracens on Saturday but one performance does not eradicate what really has been a couple of weeks of mediocrity for Mike Ford’s side.
The French giants will be glad to have Matt Giteau back in their ranks but they must now head to the Stade Marcel Michelin to face Clermont in the quarter-finals, and judging by their display there a fortnight ago, they will have to be much better if they are to stand any chance of causing an upset against the Top 14 leaders.
[tie_slide] 6. Wasps
Struggled to get going in the first-half against Zebre but as they’ve shown throughout the pool stages, they’re in the game until the very end.
Blessed with a tremendous amount of talent, fortitude and resilience, Wasps will be a tough matchup for any side in the knockout stages, but unfortunately for Dai Young’s side they must now travel to Dublin to face Leinster, who were the only side in the competition to end up with a point differential of 100+.
[tie_slide] 5. Glasgow Warriors
Glasgow enjoyed a sensational pool stage with staple wins over Racing and Leicester away from home.
Under Gregor Townsend, Glasgow have shown that they can tough it out in trench warfare or rip teams apart with their expansive style of play.
The Warriors have the unenviable task of heading to Saracens for the quarter-finals, and although the reigning champions haven’t lost at home in this competition, the Warriors have as good as a chance as any to cause an upset in London provided they can keep their star internationals fit and healthy come the end of March.
[tie_slide] 4. Munster
It’s no secret that Munster have been exceptional since Anthony Foley’s passing in October with the Reds dropping just one game from their last 12 matches in all competitions.
Munster showed their championship pedigree on the weekend with an impressive 22-10 win over Racing at Thomond Park.
Thomond has become a fortress for Munster over the last three months and it will be a very hard place for Toulouse to go and get an away win, a feat Ugo Mola’s side have had great trouble with already this season.
[tie_slide] 3. Leinster
Friday’s performance against Castres withstanding, Leinster have had a fantastic campaign thus far and have well and truly buried their very forgettable demons from last year.
The three-time champions have looked irrepressible at times and have a glittering array of international talent both on the paddock and on the bench.
Senior Coach Stuart Lancaster has had a massive impact since joining the province at the end of last year and the blues will be a very formidable matchup for Wasps in the knockout stages.
[tie_slide] 2. Saracens
Saracens went through another pool stage undefeated but they did show their vulnerability against a Toulon side that frustrated and stifled their attack.
However, in good news for the reigning champions, Sarries could have the Vunipola brothers Mako and Billy back for the quarter-finals which completely changes the dynamics of their pack.
Saracens could have easily been number one here, but the performances of Clermont really make it difficult to instill anyone else but the Top 14 leaders at the top of the ladder.
[tie_slide] 1. Clermont
Clermont put the rest of the Champions Cup on notice on Saturday with a thrilling 48-26 win over Exeter.
Late tries from Ollie Devoto, Olly Woodburn and Michele Campagnaro gave the scoreline a lot more respectability than it probably deserved, but nevertheless, this one was over at halftime as Clermont cruised to a 34-0 lead at the break.
The French leaders garnered five try bonus points with five wins, with their seven point loss to Ulster in December the only blemish in what was an otherwise stellar start to the tournament.
It remains to be seen whether inside centre Wesley Fofana will be back in time for the knockout stages, but nevertheless, Clermont will be a big threat in the quarter-finals and a side that will be fancied by many to dethrone Saracens and finally secure their maiden European Cup.