The European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup return this weekend and with Guinness PRO12 clubs heading six of ten pools across the two competitions, we run the rule over their qualification chances and potential routes to the knockout stages.
Guinness PRO12 leaders Munster set the pace in one of the most competitive groups in the Champions Cup.
There are four European titles within the group, but Munster – who have two of them while Leicester Tigers have the other two – having played a game less than Richard Cockerill’s side and Glasgow Warriors, lead the way.
Murray “Their backs are really dangerous from 9 to 15”
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) December 7, 2016
Rassie Erasmus’ side have been irrepressible since their 38-17 victory over Glasgow at Thomond Park, but in a group that also contains last year’s beaten finalists Racing 92 and the 2015 Guinness PRO12 champions, nothing can be taken for granted.
Claim at least one win from their Tigers double header and they will be in a good place to progress from a group that is set for a tight finish.
Reigning Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht have had a tough time in league action, but in Europe they have excelled – claiming nine points from ten to lead ahead of Premiership high-flyers Wasps and four-time European champions Toulouse.
A comeback win from ten points down against Toulouse at the Sportsground proves Lam’s men can play unstoppable rugby, but Wasps – semi-finalists last year – are currently an ominous proposition.
Few teams expect a positive result at the Ricoh Arena, but Lam’s side are superb on their day and Dai Young’s men recently fell to a surprise 36-18 defeat at Gloucester two weeks ago.
Six points from their Wasps double will leave Connacht in a fine position to kick on towards qualification in the New Year.
Zebre have a tough task in back-to-back clashes with Toulouse, but the Frenchmen are without a win in five European games and Gianluca Guidi’s side will be targeting an upset and a first-ever Champions Cup win at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
Scarlets’ league form has taken a sharp upwards turn since their last run in Europe and they are now seven games unbeaten in the Guinness PRO12 ahead of their trip to Toulon.
Group-leaders Saracens are the only side to win at the Stade Felix Mayol in Europe’s premier club competition, but that was only two months ago and Wayne Pivac’s side will be boosted by the return of their international contingent.
A win in southern France would be monumental, but with Toulon failing to get a bonus point away to Sale Sharks, Scarlets would be right in contention for a runners up spot if they can get at least one win and a bonus point in rounds three and four.
A bonus point in defeat to Montpellier in Champions Cup round two ensures that Leinster top Pool Four and they will be favourites coming into an away clash with Northampton Saints.
Jim Mallinder’s men have lost to Newcastle Falcons and Leicester in their last two outings, but having upset Montpellier at Franklin’s Gardens, they are no walkover at home.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) December 7, 2016
Leo Cullen brings huge European experience to the helm and Irish rugby is bouncing after unprecedented success in the autumn, but with two points separating first-place Leinster from Saints, it will take two victories from two in their double header against Mallinder’s outfit to really press home their qualification credentials.
Ulster sit third in Pool Five and face home and away ties with French giants Clermont Auvergne on successive weekends.
Les Kiss’ side did halt a run of three league defeats with victory at Cardiff Blues on Saturday, but the Ulstermen will have to be at the top of their game to hold off Clermont.
Franck Azéma’s side are five points ahead in Pool Five, with Bordeaux in second and it will take at the very least one win to keep Ulster’s qualification hopes alive.
Benetton Treviso are pointless after two clashes in Pool One of the Challenge Cup and though Bayonne sit 13th in the French Top 14, a trip away to the Stade Jean-Dauger is a daunting prospect.
Yet the Italians will be welcoming back the likes of Simone Ferrari, Edoardo Gori, Tommaso Allan and Luke McLean after victory over South Africa in the Autumn Tests, do not rule out an upset.
— Ospreys (@ospreys) December 7, 2016
Ten points from ten in the Challenge Cup so far for the Ospreys, as well as third place in the Guinness PRO12, and Steve Tandy’s side are flying high ahead of a trip to Grenoble tomorrow night.
They welcome Grenoble to the Liberty Stadium next weekend and with two bonus-point wins very much a possibility, Tandy could see his side wrap up qualification before Christmas.
Dragons shocked Gloucester Rugby in last year’s Challenge Cup semi-finals, but are four points behind Enisei-STM in Pool Three and it will take at least a victory from their two upcoming fixtures with Worcester Warriors to give them the chance of another shot at knockout glory.
Cardiff Blues clash with Bath Rugby at BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park is arguably the tie of round three in the Challenge Cup.
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) December 6, 2016
Both sides are unbeaten in Europe this year, but with Todd Blackadder’s side turning over Saracens last week and third in their league, it will be an almighty task for the Blues.
Nevertheless, if Danny Wilson’s side can win one or both against Bath, then a quarter-final place is likely.
Edinburgh Rugby have been flying high in the Challenge Cup, a stunning 36-35 win over Harlequins in the last round sending them on their way to a perfect ten in Pool Five.
Duncan Hodge’s side were finalists in the Challenge Cup in 2015 and though Stade Francais are packed with talent, if the Scottish side can win at BT Murrayfield they will position themselves well for a run at the knockout stages.
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