Monday 10 December 2018

Irish dominance in Champions Cup could lead to an unwanted record for English clubs this weekend

Jordi Murphy and Leinster could face a quarter-final against Exeter Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Jordi Murphy and Leinster could face a quarter-final against Exeter Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Andrew Baldock

The dominant form of Irish teams in rugby's Champions Cup could result in the total wipeout of English clubs when the scramble for European Champions Cup quarter-final places reaches its conclusion.

In the 21 previous seasons that England's finest have entered European rugby's blue riband club competition, at least one representative has made the last eight.

Five different English challengers - Bath, Northampton, Leicester, Wasps and Saracens - have been crowned European champions.

But there is a distinct possibility that by the time this season's pool stage concludes early on Sunday evening, no English team will be left standing.

Leicester, Northampton and Harlequins are already out, Wasps are staring at the exit door, while holders Saracens, reigning English champions Exeter and Bath are among several sides chasing the three best runners-up spots.

Three English teams are set to finish bottom of their group, none of them can win a pool and no English side will reach the 20-point mark from six games.

Exeter would appear to have the best chance of progressing as they require a bonus-point victory over Glasgow at Scotstoun on Saturday, but Saracens' European title hat-trick bid could flounder even if they collect a five-point maximum against Allianz Park visitors Northampton.

Should Exeter make it out of Pool Three, their testing reward might be an away quarter-final against Leinster, yet a last-eight place seemed out of reach for the Chiefs when they suffered back-to-back losses to the Irish heavyweights last month.

"The important thing is we have got to the last round of games with something to play for and something tangible to fight for," Exeter rugby director Rob Baxter said.

"That has rarely happened for us in the Champions Cup over the years. The last time it happened, we went through in some quote remarkable circumstances.

"We have to attack this weekend, almost not worry too much about things that are happening anywhere else and don't let things get too far out of our own hands, but go and put in a performance in that we can be proud of."

England lock Maro Itoje moves to blindside flanker for Saracens, who are without injured back-row trio Billy Vunipola, Michael Rhodes and Jackson Wray, with Schalk Burger deputising for Vunipola at number eight.

Wales international wing George North (below), meanwhile, returns on the bench for Northampton after three weeks out with a knee injury, with Clermont Auvergne guaranteed to top Pool Two if they beat second-placed Ospreys at Stade Marcel-Michelin.

George North in action for the Northampton Saints. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images for Harlequins

"We know what is required, but it's never nice when things are not in your control," Saracens rugby director Mark McCall told the club's official website.

"But what is in our control is Saturday and putting in a good performance, trying to maximise what we can get out of the game."

Bath are away to Benetton in Pool Five on Saturday, with a five-point maximum essential for their hopes, although the winner of Scarlets against Toulon will top the group and progress in front of a record 13,500-plus European crowd at Parc-y-Scarlets.

Sunday's Champions Cup action sees Wasps hosting Ulster and Harlequins visiting La Rochelle in Pool One - Wasps have little hope of going through even if they record a bonus-point success - with struggling Leicester hosting Racing 92 and Munster tackling Castres in Pool Four.

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