With the last action of European rugby of 2014, it's time to reflect on the state of the continent after 4 rounds of the Champions Cup played. Can anyone come close to Toulon and Clermont at the top, and can any of the Irish provinces improve? And what of the only unbeaten team in the Champions Cup?
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Champions Cup Power Rankings
1. Toulon (Last Position 1 – No Change)
1st in Pool 3, 13pts
In control of Pool 3 by 5 points despite a loss to Leicester underlines their credentials. They have been one of the best teams and are one of two contenders who could end up winning the tournament. They responded to their loss to Leicester the weekend previous with an emphatic dispatching of the Tigers 23-8.
They are likely to win the pool, and will probably finish as 3rd seeds.
Remaining fixtures: Ulster (H), Scarlets (A).
2. Clermont (2 – No Change)
1st in Pool 1, 14 pts
A back to back win over Munster is huge for the Clermont team, who seem to be a lot more solid in defense with the addition of Jonno Gibbes as head coach. Camille Lopez is a great find, and they are Toulon's main challengers for the kings of Europe.
At 14 points, a point ahead of Saracens, you'd fancy Clermont to go on and claim a home quarter final.
Remaining fixtures: Sale (A), Saracens (H)
3. Northampton (4- Up 1)
1st in Pool 5, 15 pts
10 tries, two hat tricks and one absolute hammering dished out to hapless Treviso. Northampton now have try bonus point in each win, with the only mark on their copybook the loss to Racing Metro.
They have a tough end to their pool, but in this form, it's hard to see past them getting close to the top seeds.
Remaining Fixtures: Ospreys (A), Racing Metro (H)
4. Leicester (3 – Down 1)
3rd in Pool 3, 8 points
A lot of the great work of beating Toulon in Welford Road was undone with a poor performance in the return fixture. A losing bonus point was the minimum that the Tigers needed, and they didn't back it up. They are up against it with their hopes of qualifying, but they will need as close to a maximum ten points from their remaining fixtures. With the games against Toulon over and done with, it's not beyond the realms of possibility.
Remaining Fixtures: Scarlets (H), Ulster (A)
5. Toulouse (6 – Up 1)
1st in Pool 4, 16 pts
They hold the title of the only unbeaten side in the competition, and with fixtures against Bath and Montpeiller to come, you wouldn't back against them going the whole pool stage unbeaten. They haven't taken Europe by storm, merely grinding out victories against unimpressive opponents.
Glasgow should have won on Saturday, but Finn Russell was wayward with the boot on far too many occasions.
Remaining Fixtures: Montpeiller (H), Bath (A)
6. Racing (5- Down 1)
2nd in Pool 5, 14 pts
Without Jonny Sexton for the second week in a row, Racing Metro with Springbok Johan Goosen at the helm, were impressive against the Welsh region. It was an entertaining game, with good periods for both teams. It's likely that this pool will be decided in Round 6 when Racing travel to Northampton, with both teams likely to reach the quarterfinals.
Remaining Fixtures: Treviso (H), Northampton (A)
7. Harlequins (7 - No change)
1st in Pool 2, 13pts
Harlequins did very well to come back from a halftime 11-0 deficit to nearly broke Leinster hearts. They probably should have. They were the better side on the day again as Leinster continue to struggle to play their best. Conor O'Shea has done wonders with a limited budget, and they now have the head to head advantage with relatively easy games against Wasps and Castres to come.
Remaining Fixtures: Wasps (H), Castres (A)
8. Saracens (9- Up 1)
2nd in Pool 1, 13 pts
A glance at the pool table would leave you to believe that Saracens are in a good place to make a push for the pool. In reality, they have two extremely difficult games remaining, while they failed to take full advantage against a poor Sale side. I'd fancy Munster to sneak it in Allianz in January, while Clermont away isn't the place you want to go looking for points.
Remaining Fixtures: Munster (H), Clermont (A)
9. Munster (8 – Down 1)
3rd in Pool 1, 10 pts
At the end of the day, that losing bonus point could be vital. Munster know exactly what they need to do, and it's extremely manageable. 9 points from their remaining two games will certainly see them through, at you could say that 8 could also be enough. Maybe.
Given the belief and passion behind them, it's hard to say they won't get what they need, starting in Watford in mid January.
Remaining Fixtures: Saracens (A), Clermont (H)
10. Leinster (12 – Up 2)
2nd in Pool 2, 13 pts
How they have 13 points playing they way they are is beyond me. Sitting in the stand last week at the Stoop was demoralising as a fan, as it's clear that Leinster are better than what they are producing even with players out injured. The fact is though, that two wins will certainly see them through as one of the best losers, although try bonus points, which are very hard to come by, could swing the pool in their favour.
Remaining Fixtures: Castres (H), Wasps (A)
11. Glasgow (10 – Down 1)
2nd in Pool 4, 10 pts
This was a game that Glasgow through away. Russell, though excellent in play, kicked terribly that ultimately cost the Scottish side their win. Toulouse did not have to play outstanding in the game to record the win, in quite a boring game to watch. It was only when Fijians Leone Nakawara and Niko Matawalu came on that there was any spark in the game.
Glasgow now have their backs to the wall a little bit, and the return fixture against Bath may not be the walkover that the first game was.
Remaining Fixtures: Montpeiller (H), Bath (A)
12. Wasps (16 – Up 4)
3rd in Pool 2, 12 pts
It's hard to ignore a team with 4 bonus points. They are the only team in Pool 2 to record try bonus points, and their maximum haul against Castres has given the Coventry based club a lifeline in the pool.
Unfortunately for them, their next two pool games are against much tougher opponents than their last two games. It's hard to imagine Wasps getting another win in the competition, although stranger things have happened.
Remaining Fixtures: Harlequins (A), Leinster (H)
13. Scarlets (14 – Up 1)
2nd in Pool 3, 8 pts
Scarlets were good value for that win, and deserve to keep their slim qualification hopes alive. They stormed into a 12-0 lead in the first half and took advantage of the Ulster ill discipline. Scarlets bossed the game, and more showings like this could trouble Leicester or Toulon.
I find it hard to imagine them actually recording the victory they need over Toulon however, and they maybe better served to concentrate on their fight for the last spot in the top 6 of the Pro 12 with automatic European qualification.
Remaining Fixtures: Leicester (A), Toulon (H)
14. Ulster (11 – Down 3)
4th in Pool 3, 6 pt
Ulster's poor performance really put dampener on a decent weekend for Irish rugby. Aside from Connacht's 2nd team beating Bayonne away, Leinster still recorded a win, while Munster would have taken a losing bonus point away to Clermont. Ulster badly needed a win in this game and came up very short. They nearly snuck it in the end, but Pienaar missed the kicks and an intercept try cost them a bonus point.
Their European is all but mathematically over, and with a visit to Toulon to come next up additional nails are being readied into their European dream for this season.
Remaining Fixtures: Toulon (A). Leicester (H)
15. Bath (15- No Change)
3rd in Pool 4, 10pts
In case you weren't aware, a man by the name of Sam Burgess started his first game of rugby union for Bath last Friday. Burgess was one of the best rugby league players in Australia, and the English hype train has gone into overdrive at the prospect of England winning a World Cup on homesoil with "Slammin Sam" the messiah to lead them there.
In reality, Bath overcame a disinterested Montpeiller side, and had the try bonus point sewn up by halftime. This, along with Glasgow's losses to Toulouse have dragged the midlands club back into relevance, and they could be a tougher opponent in the next two games. We'll wait and see.
Remaining Fixtures: Toulouse (A), Glasgow (H)
16. Ospreys (13 – Down 3)
3rd in Pool 5, 8pts
For Ospreys wonderful start to the season, getting 3 points from the last two games isn't how they wanted their involvement in Europe to end. They are now 6 points behind 2nd place Racing and will have to face pool leaders Northampton next. It's still possible, but that becomes a cup final for the Welsh side who would also need favours the following week from Racing Metro to have any hope of just finishing second in their pool.
Remaining Fixtures: Northampton (H), Treviso (A)
17. Sale (17 - No change)
4th in Pool 1, 2 pts
A 4th loss in a row for Sale ends their interest in Europe that was always going to be minimal after the horrendous draw they received. They've given a good account of themselves, not conceding any try bonus points. They will be targeting the return game with Munster as their most likely source of points.
Remaining Fixtures: Clermont (H), Munster (A)
18. Castres (18 - no change)
4th in Pool 2, 1pt
In case you were in any doubt, French teams outside of the top 4, do not care about the Champions Cup. It is a distraction. The majority of their money comes from the Top 14, and that is where there interests lie. Castres are currently bottom of the Top 14, and their survival matters more than attempting any sort of European challenge.
Remaining Fixtures: Leinster (A), Harlequins (H)
19. Montpeiller (19 - No change)
4th in Pool 4, 2 pts
That their performance was better is like saying you only got stung by a wasp 4 times instead of 5. Montpeiller, for all their heavy southern hemisphere investment, have a great team on paper, yet are still flattering to deceive when it comes to the crunch.
Remaining Fixtures: Glasgow (A), Toulouse (H)
20. Treviso (20 – No Change)
4th in Pool 5, 0 pts
That was an embarrassment. If I could drop Treviso lower in these Champions Cup Power Rankings, I would. They conceded 10 tries and score 0 points in Franklins Gardens. The new format was meant to make games more competitive, and the outrage at not including Italian teams because they were getting better was used as an argument against change for so long.
It turns out that length of time with all the doubt last year lead to a lot of departures from their squad, which now means they are a shadow of a team of their former selves.
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