All four provinces proving competitive on the European stage
In stark contrast to this point last season when only Ulster still harboured hopes of reaching the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup, all four provinces are still standing in advance of a return to domestic matters and festive derbies.
That said, some are wobblier on their feet than others.
Indeed, Ulster’s hopes of reaching the last eight are the least promising after yesterday’s fluctuating 32-19 defeat away to Clermont, which took to 17 the numbers of tries scored in their back-to-back meetings.
However, Saturday’s surprising defeat for Bordeaux Begles at home to Exeter means Ulster sit alongside the French outfit on nine points in Pool 5, prior to visiting Exeter and then hosting Bordeaux in January when two wins will be imperative if they are to secure one of three best runners-up places.
That door, at the very least, remains very much ajar for Connacht after the weekend’s most dramatic endgame culminated in Jack Carty’s match-winning touchline conversion to seal their 20-17 win in front of a raucous, 8,000-plus capacity crowd at the Sportsground.
The fall-out continued yesterday when a statement by the tournament organisers, EPCR, confirmed that the replacement referee, Mathieu Raynal, had erred in permitting Connacht to kick a penalty to touch after the 80 minute mark had passed.
“As time had elapsed, Connacht should not have been permitted to take a lineout throw-in once the ball had been kicked into touch as stipulated in Law 5.7 (e) of World Rugby’s Laws of the Game,” read the statement.
“EPCR would like to thank all parties for their understanding and would also like to confirm that the result of the Pool 2 match stands.”
Connacht’s win thus ensured a three-way tie atop Pool 2 on 13 points, with Pat Lam’s side hosting Zebre in round five, when Wasps host Toulouse. A Wasps win, denying Toulouse a losing bonus point, would leave Connacht very well placed to reach the last eight when visiting Toulouse on the final weekend.
“The main thing is job done, we’re still alive, it’s in our control,” said Lam afterwards. “We have always done well against Zebre because we put a lot of respect in them but we are going to have to raise the tempo.
“We know we have to get five points from that game and really crank it up because it is going to be neck and neck and see what happens with Wasps-Toulouse and that will determine what we have to do in Toulouse. The most important thing is we are alive and it is a great pool.”
Lam described the win over Wasps as “one of the highlights of my coaching career because of what we have been through this week”, in reference to having 20 players ruled out and being restricted to one curtailed training run on Thursday.
“We said right from the beginning we worked hard last year to get here and we didn’t want to make up the numbers. We are so determined to try and be the first Connacht team to make some serious history and get to that last eight.”
“You look at all the clubs and the history of Champions Cup rugby and I keep saying it is the dream, that Connacht rugby sits there in the eight teams.
“I want to see when they put the top eight and start doing the quarter-finals if I can see Connacht rugby there that will be a big highlight, a big highlight for me.”
Indeed, he would rate reaching the last eight as on at least a par with winning last season’s Pro12.
“We have gone back to back with their [Wasps] players and their budget, what they have and we had 20 injuries. And then Toulouse we know what they have got in their squad.
“We are really fighting hard here and if we can get through it is going to be an amazing achievement and if we get to a quarter-final we will back ourselves. It would be right up there; it would probably be the highlight of everything.”
Leinster are best-placed of all the Irish sides following Saturday night’s 60-13 bloodless coup over Northampton, which means another home win over Montpellier in round five will secure a quarter-final with a game to spare.
The tournament organisers are reputedly of a mind to investigate whether Northampton fielded a weakened team, but their director of rugby Jim Mallinder reacted angrily to such a notion.
“I don’t think that was a ‘B’ team. We rested some players that have played a lot. Some of our internationals when Ireland weren’t playing two weeks ago were playing against Australia. Some of our players didn’t have the benefit of a week off so I wouldn’t call it a ‘B’ team out there. There was quite a few of our first-team regulars.”
Munster, for their part, can regain leadership of Pool 1 by winning their rearranged game away to Racing, who are now out of contention, in Paris on January 7th, although their last-ditch defeat away to Leicester on Saturday has dented their hopes of winning the group.
Rassie Erasmus accepted that Leicester deserved to win, and looking ahead to the pool finale, commented: “It’s exciting. From my side, it’s nerve-wracking but it’s exciting. It’s a pool where at the beginning, everyone was saying “we’re going to be the easy game” in the pool after the way we played last year.”
“I think we’re growing into a steady and a solid team. We’ve got a way to go. All of a sudden, a team doesn’t become unbeatable. So, yeah, it’s a very tight pool currently. We’ve got a game in hand but there are two away games coming so it’s tough to go forward.”
However, Ulster captain Rory Best admitted his team were “massively disappointed” by an opening 25 minutes which saw them fall 21-0 behind.
They recovered from a 28-0 deficit with three tries of their own and came within a kick of putting themselves within bonus point range before Clermont pulled away.
“We came here hoping to win, expecting to win. We prepared well for it. We knew that if we did the things that we talked about all week we had a good chance. We didn’t do that at the start and it’s cost us a losing bonus point which I think we put ourselves in a great position to get.”