Champions Cup Pool A preview: Leinster and Ulster look set to progress

Leinster’s trip to Montpellier next weekend will be very revealing

Teams: Bath, Clermont Auvergne, Exeter, Glasgow, LEINSTER, Montpellier, Northampton, Ospreys, Racing 92, Sale, Stade Rochelais, ULSTER.

As Leinster have Bath, bottom of the Premiership, first up at home, their second game next Friday in Montpellier looks like holding the key to their campaign. Montpellier are the form side and third in the Top 14 with five successive wins and are typical of a Philippe Saint-André-coached side; big, bruising, direct and in the opposition’s faces.

But win that, and Leinster should be well placed to top the pool, all the more so with Montpellier likely to be out of contention come the final pool round. If so that could give them the carrot of potential home advantage through to the final.

Andrew Porter's transition to loosehead, allied to the emergence of Rónan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan, Caelan Doris also encourages the belief that they might have the firepower to cope with the heavy hitters who've proved a bridge too far in the last three seasons. In that respect too, the Montpellier trip could be very revealing.


Ulster have been unfortunate in picking up a raft of injuries as Europe looms and look potentially depowered at scrum time as a result, albeit Duane Vermeulen having recovered from Covid to make his debut in Clermont on Saturday evening is a boost.

Clermont have won their last five at Stade Michelin but the Auvergne regional paper La Montagne has revealed that backrower Judicaël Cancoriet has tested positive, and Camille Lopez has been deemed a close contact, meaning JJ Hanrahan starts. Furthermore Kotaro Matsushima and George Moala, who are not vaccinated, will also miss the game.

Ulster have a six-day turnaround before hosting Northampton next Friday night. Save for one heavy defeat by Leicester, the Saints are turning Franklin’s Gardens into a fortress again and play an adventurous brand of rugby on the best surface in the Premiership. One could see Ulster and Northampton taking points off each other.

Ronan O’Gara has admitted that La Rochelle suffered a hangover from the anti-climactic losses in both finals last season but did regroup before coughing up a 20-6 lead in losing away to Stade Francais last weekend.

But the return to European action should galvanise them, all the more so as they host Glasgow first up at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre, which is always rocking. With two games against Bath to follow, O’Gara’s men should be well in the mix for a high qualification spot.

Similarly Exeter started slowly with two defeats, and ensuing losses at home to London Irish and Newcastle has made for an unusually inconsistent campaign, but the champions from two seasons ago do return to Europe on the back of a good win over Saracens last weekend. With Montpellier and Glasgow their opponents, they look a little more vulnerable than usual but should have enough to progress.

Racing and Sale have also misfired this season but the importance of seeding in the draw could be reflected in this pool’s outcome.

Projected qualifiers: Leinster, La Rochelle, Exeter, Racing, Ulster, Sale, Clermont and Northampton.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times