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Guinness PRO12 in Europe: Connacht and Glasgow aim for history

When it comes to European history, Connacht and Toulouse are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but Pat Lam’s side can claim their own slice of rugby history if they down the four-time champions at the Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday.

While Toulouse are the tournament’s most successful side, Connacht can make their first-ever European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final if they beat Ugo Mola’s side at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Glasgow Warriors have their own shot at a first-ever quarter-final, with Saturday’s opponents Leicester Tigers unbeaten at Welford Road in Europe since 2006.

Munster and Leinster may be through, but with home quarter-finals up for grabs, they face Racing 92 and Castres respectively, while Zebre can do their Guinness PRO12 rivals Connacht a favour if they can hold Wasps and Scarlets seek to end their campaign on a high against Sale Sharks.

Ulster also have an outside chance of qualifying if they can beat Bordeaux-Begles at the Kingspan Stadium.

Connacht target first ever Champions Cup quarter-finals: (Sunday 22 January, 3.15pm KO)

Two years outside the knockout Champions Cup stages is a drought by Toulouse’s standards, but if Connacht can maintain their remarkable European form then the Guinness PRO12 Champions may just extend that run.

Pat Lam had to call on John Cooney as a makeshift fly-half last week against Zebre, but has the considerable boost of bringing in Jack Carty, Peter Robb, Quinn Roux, Nepia Fox-Matamua and Jake Heenan this weekend.

Connacht have the psychological boost of having won at Toulouse before – in 2013 – but Lam is under no illusions as to the challenge that awaits his side.

He said: “We are aware of the phenomenal challenge that awaits us in Toulouse on Sunday but these are the sort of games that you want to be a part of.  It’s an opportunity as a player and as a team to put in a performance on the big stage.”

Can Glasgow Warriors make history? (Saturday 21 January, 5.30pm)

If it wasn’t for Francis Saili’s try then Glasgow would have one foot planted in a first-ever Champions Cup quarter-final, but as it stands, a win is probably needed to see them through.

Though a 42-13 win at Scotstoun suggests that Gregor Townsend’s side have the measure of Tigers, Leicester have lost just once at Welford Road in European competition – against Munster in 2006.

And Munster found that out in Round 4 when a 38-0 win at Thomond Park became an 18-16 Leicester win a week later.

If Glasgow have to soak up pressure in front of a pumped-up Leicester side and a vociferous Welford Road crowd, they have the benefit of the tournament’s top two tacklers in Jonny Gray and Ryan Wilson.

But according to Townsend, they will look to take the game away from Tigers before that becomes a necessity.

He said: “I can sense a real excitement in our players. There was an edge, an accuracy and a real energy about our training this week. It’s probably the best we’ve trained all season. Let’s hope that transfers into our best performance as we’ll need to play well to win.

“Our aim is to deliver a performance that means we can get what will be a really important win for the club.

“They’ve shown they can perform really well. They are the only team to have beaten Munster over the last three months.”

Battle for home quarter-finals:

After a one-year hiatus, Leinster’s place in the quarter-finals is secure, but in travelling to Castres they have a huge challenge ahead if they are to make certain an RDS quarter-final.

Any one of Clermont, Munster, Connacht, Saracens and Wasps can move past Leinster in the quarter-final seedings but even though Castres have a solid record at home, Leinster have won five a row against the Frenchmen.

Leo Cullen has named a side packed with international talent – Jonathan Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Cian Healy, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip all start at the Stade Pierre-Antoine, with a bonus point making a home quarter certain.

Munster too have sealed their return to the Champions Cup quarters – the 16th time they have progressed in 22 attempts – and after putting Racing 92 away 32-7 at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir will be confident of wrapping up their own home quarter-final.

Standout European performers Simon Zebo, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Tyler Bleyendaal all start for Rassie Erasmus’ men at Thomond Park, a ground where Munster have lost just once to French opposition.

Ulster’s chances of progression took a hit against Exeter Chiefs last weekend, but they have brought Tommy Bowe in to start as they seek to give themselves a chance against Bordeaux-Begles.

Les Kiss’ side go in the early kick-off and will have to wait on other results, but a bonus point win over the Frenchmen – as Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan go head to head – would move them to 16 points and if both Glasgow and Toulon lose, there’s a chance they could progress.

Scarlets will look to wrap up their European campaign – in which they’ve beaten three-time champions Toulon – and drawn with holders Saracens in positive fashion against Sale and Zebre host Wasps.

Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €30 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie.
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final