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European Champions Cup Predictions – Key Clashes of Round 4

It’s all to play for in the European Champions Cup as sides either look to qualify for or strengthen their seeding in the last 16 in the final round of pool matches this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

It’s all to play for in the European Champions Cup as sides either look to qualify for or strengthen their seeding in the last 16 in the final round of pool matches this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

The top eight teams from each of the two 12-team pools progress to the round of 16. Seven slots have already been sealed, with Racing 92 (14), Ulster (14) and La Rochelle (11) qualifying from Pool A and Harlequins (14), the Leicester Tigers (14), Munster (13), and the Bristol Bears (12) through from Pool B.

Having punched their ticket to the two-legged final 16 round won’t dim these teams’ intensity one bit as they’ll be out to secure the highest seeding possible to pave the smoothest path forward, with the top-ranked team from Pool A playing the eighth-ranked team from Pool B and so forth.

Leinster (10), Exeter Chiefs (10), Bordeaux (8), Connacht (8), Sale (7), Clermont Auvergne (7) and rattled defending champions Toulouse (7) are in promising positions to progress, but with giant-killers Wasps and the likes of Glasgow, Montpellier, Castres, and Stade Francais all still in the mix, the stage is set for a riveting weekend of rugby.

We pick and preview the key clashes of the fourth round:

Ulster v Clermont Auvergne

Saturday, 22 January – 22:00

Unbeaten Ulster sits second in Pool A behind Racing 92 on points’ difference after doing the double over the Northampton Saints with a 24-20 bonus-point win last weekend. Racing 92 are expected to sink the Saints to solidify the top spot, so for Ulster, the mission is more to hang onto second place.

To do so, they need at least two log points but they’ll be confident of clinching four or more after beating Clermont Auvergne 29-23 in their backyard in Round One. It was a massive result for the Irish outfit as it marked their first European Champions Cup win in France since 2016.

A win for seventh-placed Clermont Auvergne (7) will secure their place in the last 16, but they were three steps behind Ulster for the duration of the first meeting. Improved discipline will be the obvious first order of business, but even if they iron that out, Ulster is a bad stylistic match-up for them. It’ll take hard work, but the hosts are good for the win.

Prediction: Ulster by 9.

Suggested Bet: Ulster -6.5 at 1.85.

Glasgow Warriors v La Rochelle

Saturday, 22 January – 22.00

This and the abovementioned match will make for channel hopping as they have overlapping stakes. If La Rochelle (11) continues their winning ways and Ulster doesn’t bag at least two log points, the French club will move up from third to second at Ulster’s expense.

La Rochelle remains unbeaten, the “draw” on their record being one of the countless postponed matches turned into ties. They’re playing with an intensity spawned from the heartache of falling at the final hurdle last year. For the Warriors, they might be playing La Rochelle, but they’re in head-to-head competition with Montpellier for the final qualifying spot in Pool A.

Both are on five points, with the Warriors’ superior points’ difference putting them in the all-important eighth position going into the final round. A win could see them finish as high as sixth if other results go their way and after pushing La Rochelle hard in France, this should be a tough battle.

Superior composure and bossing the breakdown were what won it 20-13 for La Rochelle in Round One and those advantages should get them over the line in Glasgow.

Prediction: La Rochelle by 3.

Suggested Bet: La Rochelle -1.5 at 1.90.

Stade Francais v Connacht

Sunday, 23 January – 15.00

Back in the top-flight for the first time since 2015-16, Stade Francois has toiled but been found to be out of their depth. It was Connacht who gave them the coldest of welcome back parties, turning them back 36-9, and from a head-to-head standpoint, there’s little to suggest the rematch will go much different.

They gave a better account of themselves in the 28-17 loss to Bristol last weekend, after their first scheduled match against the English club was a no-go (declared a draw), and rather surprisingly, enter this fixture as the favourites 1.58. They still have an outside chance of qualifying, so they’ll pour everything into this performance.

Meanwhile, sixth-placed Connacht will be kicking themselves for letting Leicester snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after having the Gallagher Premiership pacesetters on the ropes for most of the match last weekend. A bonus-point win and a bit of good fortune could see them finish in the top four and they’re set to do their part as they have more sting on attack and structure on defence.

Prediction: Connacht by 10.

Suggested Bet: Connacht at 2.30.

Munster v Wasps

Sunday, 23 January – 17:15

The match of the weekend. Three from three see Munster in the third position in Pool B following their thrilling 16-13 win over Castres last Sunday. They have their sights set on securing home ground advantage for the quarter and semi-finals, should they get that far. To do so, they have to claim a bonus-point win and need Castres and Bordeaux to beat Harlequins and Leicester respectively.

The Wasps are on the bubble in Pool B after shocking Toulouse at the weekend. The stunning 30-22 victory over the defending champions was the first of their campaign and lifted them to eighth on six points, one behind their decorated French victims and, more importantly, three ahead of ninth-placed Castres.

Castres are winless and unlikely to shock unbeaten pool leaders Harlequins, so the Wasps will in all likelihood still advance if they come up short, but they’ll be intent on drowning Munster with the tsunami of momentum from their giant-slaying triumphs over previously unbeaten Gallagher Premiership leaders Leicester and Toulouse over the past fortnight.

Both of those upsets came at home and while they’ll put up a hell of a fight, I can’t see them toppling the two-time champion Irish powerhouse at Thomond Park.

Prediction: Munster by 5.

Suggested Bet: Munster -11.5 at 1.85.

Montpellier v Exeter Chiefs

Sunday, 23 January – 19:30

Montpellier needs a miracle to sneak in through the backdoor. As aforementioned, they’re tied with eighth-placed Glasgow on five log points but are on the outside looking in ninth. Points-difference is a lost cause, with the Warriors leading that race by 63, so it comes down to pulling off an upset for the ages and hoping La Rochelle slay the Warriors as expected.

It can’t get any worse for Montpellier than the record 89-7 loss they endured at the hands of Leinster last Sunday. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre had no option but to field a severely understrength side due to Covid, so there’s an asterisk next to the startling scoreline.

Montpellier will be bolstered, which could spark a glimmer of hope in some, but the reality is they were hammered 42-6 by the self-same Chiefs in Round One. With Exeter fifth on 10 points with an opportunity to finish near the top, they’ll keep their foot on the gas and leave the hosts in the dirt.

Prediction: Exeter Chiefs by 28.

Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at SARugby.com and senior staff writer at Rugby365.com, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.

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