There is a sporting chance that by the end of next week the Guinness PRO12 will have supplied a majority of the last eight in the European Champions’ Cup.
Leinster, Munster, Warriors, Connacht, Ulster and Scarlets are all in varying degrees of contention for the quarter-finals going into the penultimate round of the pool stage. In the process they have gone some way to producing an emphatic response to last season, that their overall failure to reach the last eight was nothing more than a blip.
Collectively, the Celtic teams have out-performed their rivals from the Premiership and Top 14. Munster’s thumping of Racing 92 in Paris last weekend reinforced the Guinness PRO12’s position ahead of the other two major domestic leagues based on results from the first four rounds.
While it may be asking too much to expect all six to qualify for the knock-out stages, as many as five have got there before, as recently as five years ago when Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh joined a trio of Irish provinces (Leinster, Munster, Ulster).
The first two of those are already a fair way down the track not merely to making the last eight but securing home ties in Dublin and Limerick respectively. Connacht, home to Zebre, could reasonably expect to be topping their pool come Saturday night given that their two rivals, Wasps and Toulouse, are on a collision course in Coventry a couple of hours later.
Warriors’ prospects of qualifying for their first quarter-final rest on arguably the biggest challenge of the weekend. Should they manage to stop the Munster bandwagon rolling through Glasgow on Saturday night, Gregor Townsend’s squad will still have to win at Leicester Tigers the following week to be sure of getting through the most demanding of pools.
As for Scarlets and Ulster, at least they know exactly what they have to do. With no margin left for further error, each needs a grandstand, 10-out-of-10 finish to catch the boat into the last eight as two of the three best runners-up.
It will take some doing, especially for Wales’ sole Champions’ Cup challenger. Having beaten one serial champion team, Toulon, in the previous round before Christmas, they are now obliged to beat another in Saracens.
That the holders happen to be the only team to have won all four Champions’ Cup ties says everything about the magnitude of the task awaiting Scarlets but at least they have home advantage in what they call ‘Heart and Soul Rugby Country.’
Since losing to Munster on the opening day of the season, the west Walians have reeled off nine straight wins at Parc y Scarlets against Connacht, Dragons, Sale, Warriors, Bath, Leinster, Toulon, Cardiff Blues and Ulster.
No Welsh team has made more of a splash in Europe this season than the Ospreys. The current Guinness PRO12 leaders have swept all before them in the Challenge Cup, averaging almost eight tries per match in the process. Nobody in England and France will doubt the strength of the Guinness PRO12 threat to prevent their recent dominance extending to a fifth Challenge Cup final.
Tomorrow – Peter Jackson names his Form XV for the Guinness PRO12 as all 12 clubs prepare for European action.
Who plays who as Guinness PRO12 contenders aim to earn knock-out berths over the final rounds:
Munster (16 pts): Warriors (a), Racing (h).
Warriors (13 pts): Munster (h), Leicester Tigers (a).
Wasps (13 pts): Toulouse (h), Zebre (a).
Toulouse (13 pts): Wasps (a), Connacht (h).
Connacht (13 pts): Zebre (h), Toulouse (a).
Saracens (18 pts): Scarlets (a), Toulon (h).
Toulon (10 pts): Sale Sharks (h), Saracens (a).
Scarlets (8 pts): Saracens (h), Sale Sharks (a).
Leinster (16 pts): Montpellier (h), Castres (a).
Montpellier (11pts): Leinster (a), Northampton (h).
Castres (9 pts): Northampton (a), Leinster (h).
Clermont (17 pts): Bordeaux (a), Exeter Chiefs (h)
Bordeaux (9 pts): Clermont (h), Ulster (a).
Ulster (9 pts): Exeter Chiefs (a), Bordeaux (h).
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final