After four rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup, the quarter-final lineup is already beginning to take shape.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fall of Racing 92, who despite being fancied to claim the trophy at the end of the season, find themselves at the bottom of Pool 1 without even attaining a bonus point during their opening three games.
Racing are likely to be joined at the wrong end of the pool by the Leicester Tigers, who suffered big defeats at the hands of the Glasgow Warriors and Munster. As a result, Richard Cockerill finds himself under a great deal of pressure.
Although professional rugby is a results-driven business, the Tigers’ Director of Rugby has unfortunately had to deal with injuries to his first choice centre pairing of Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi, and his side lack a cutting edge as a result.
While the Tigers are effectively out of this season’s competition, they can nonetheless influence the outcome of the pool. Leicester are a proud club and won’t roll over for anybody, so Glasgow will find their trip to Welford Road difficult.
Nevertheless, I expect both Munster and Glasgow to qualify from a pool that was regarded as the tournament’s most difficult at the beginning of the season.
With three sides on 13 points, pool 2 has developed into the tournament’s most interesting pool. Wasps, Connacht and Toulouse have taken points from each other, and with Zebre acting as cannon fodder this pool could also supply two quarter-finalists.
However, such an outcome should not be assumed. Although Connacht should pick up a bonus point win over the Italian side, they might struggle to attain anything in Toulouse, leaving the Irish side on 18 points come the final shake up.
Likewise, Toulouse face a difficult trip to Wasps in the next round before facing Connacht in their final pool phase game. With a healthy points difference and head-to-head record over their opponents, Wasps remain in control of the pool, and should qualify as winners with 22 points.
With 18 points already accumulated, Saracens should emerge as the top ranked seed when the quarter-final lineup becomes apparent. Toulon could potentially join the Champions in the knock-out phase, but after losing to the Scarlets, their future in the competition hangs by a thread.
Although Toulon should claim a comfortable win over Sale Sharks at home in round five, in order to be sure of qualification, the three-time winners will have to bonus point Sarries at Allianz Park. Consequently, pool 3 is likely to provide only one quarter-finalist.
The game between Leinster and Montpellier will determine the winner of pool 4. With five points separating the sides, Montpellier have to win in Dublin if they are to qualify for the knock-out phase.
An unlikely outcome given Leinster’s current form, and so the Irish side are the only likely qualifiers from the pool at the moment.
As strange as it seems, pool 5 could yet produce two quarter-finalists. Clermont should qualify with ease, leaving Ulster with an outside chance of emerging as a second placed side.
However, to do so the Irish province will have to record bonus point wins over both the Exeter Chiefs and Bordeaux Begles. While the French side are beatable, simply winning in Sandy Park is a difficult assignment.
Nevertheless, Ulster will need to have 19 points in the bank at the conclusion of the pool phase if they are to have any chance of qualification.
Frank Quinn, Pundit Arena
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