Champions Cup permutations: What each province needs to reach the knockout stages

Leinster safe, Munster all but secure but Ulster and Connacht need victories and results to go their way

As things stand, Leinster are the only Irish province to have guaranteed their place in the Champions Cup round of 16 heading into the final weekend of pool action.

With Munster winning to boost their chances while Connacht and Ulster saw their odds lengthen thanks to heavy defeats in round three, here is what each of the four provinces needs from round four to be in with a chance of continuing their European journey after the Six Nations.


Having already qualified for the knockouts, just one bonus point away to Leicester this weekend would see Leinster guarantee a home tie in the round of 16; a solitary point would guarantee they finish top of Pool 4 with the Stormers and Leicester currently five points behind them in the standings.

However, Leinster’s opening victory away to La Rochelle, where they could not secure a four-try bonus point in wet conditions, could come back to bite them somewhat. They are currently fourth in the overall seeding, with Bordeaux and Toulouse on the maximum total of 15 points having secured three bonus point victories - one point ahead of Leinster. Northampton are level on points with Leinster but have a marginally better points difference - 59 vs 53.


To ensure as high a seed as possible and therefore secure home knockout matches deep into the competition, Leinster need results elsewhere to go their way. Bordeaux are in Pretoria to play the Bulls, traditionally a difficult place for European teams to travel, while Northampton are in Limerick to take on Munster.

If Leo Cullen’s side beats Leicester and gets favours from their local rivals and the Bulls, they will finish as second seed behind Toulouse, assuming the French side beats Bath at home. If Bath win, given they are also on 15 points but second in their pool on points difference, they too will be in contention for top seeding. A draw in this fixture is the ideal result for Leinster.


Not through yet, but victory over Toulon puts Graham Rowntree’s side in a significantly better position than before the weekend. They now need just one bonus point from Northampton’s trip to Thomond Park on Saturday, and could even qualify with nothing from that game depending on results elsewhere.

To secure a home round of 16 tie, Munster need Bayonne to beat Exeter while denying them any bonus point, while beating Northampton themselves by nine points to overtake the Chiefs on points difference. In terms of overall seeding, Munster could also do with Leinster beating Leicester, Stade Francais seeing off the Stormers at home, the Bulls to lose to Bordeaux at home and Ulster to beat Harlequins away.

Given that Bayonne’s chances of staying in the Champions Cup are all but gone, they could easily field a second string outfit this weekend which would do Munster no good at all. That said, they are still in the hunt for Challenge Cup places, and playing at home may compel the French side into picking a stronger XV.

Given Bayonne’s recent poor form, a betting man would have Munster finishing third in Pool 3 and on the road in the knockout stages.


The defeat to Toulouse without a bonus point on Saturday evening really has put the cat among the pigeons for their qualification chances. Racing losing on Sunday to Bath was at least some good news in that it stopped the French side from overtaking them. However, Stuart Lancaster’s Parisians play Cardiff at home this weekend. Given Racing’s poor form in Europe this year, it’s not a sure five-pointer, but it’s as close as they’ll get to one.

That means Ulster will almost certainly have to beat Harlequins away in London on Saturday to still qualify. ‘Quins have already reached the last 16, but still have plenty to play for in terms of seeding. If Toulouse deny Bath bonus points and ‘Quins beat Ulster with a bonus point, the Londoners could jump above Bath and earn a home round of 16 tie on points difference.

For Ulster, the picture is clearer. A home knockout game in the next round is out of the question. To qualify, they need to beat ‘Quins and if they don’t, pray that Cardiff can do them an unlikely favour in Paris. An Ulster defeat and Racing victory would see Dan McFarland’s men drop into the Challenge Cup.


They’re all but gone after a heavy defeat to Lyon. However, Saracen’s heavy, bonus point-free defeat to Bordeaux on Sunday, coupled with Bristol’s defeat to the Bulls on Saturday, leaves Connacht with a glimmer of hope.

They play Bristol at home on Friday evening. Coming up against their former boss Pat Lam, Connacht need to beat the Bears with a bonus point while ideally denying Bristol one of their own. If Connacht secure five points and Bristol earn a bonus point of any variety, then the western province will need to outscore the Bears by 20 points - unlikely to say the least.

If they win, score four tries and stop Bristol from getting anything out of the game, then Connacht will be on six points overall, Bristol five. That wouldn’t be enough, as Connacht also need Saracens to lose without a bonus point at home to Lyon in the late kick-off on Saturday.

Lyon have plenty to play for, seeing as they’re trying to preserve second spot in the table and with it a home round of 16 tie. They shouldn’t, therefore, send a second string to north London, so there is hope for Connacht. Given the Bulls are playing pool-leaders Bordeaux in South Africa, there could even be a chance for Lyon to top the group if Bordeaux lose.

For Connacht, a bonus point win over Bristol with the Bears and Saracens earning nothing from their games would see an unlikely qualification into the next round. If they beat Bristol, deny them a bonus point, but Saracens get anything - even just a bonus point - then Connacht will play in the Challenge Cup.

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Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist