Europe is the word on all our lips at the moment but for some people that means a different sort of race and the rugby teams taking each other on this week will all be hoping to stay in Europe.
Pool 1 is composed entirely of former winners but Leinster and Toulouse have dominated the pool from the moment a ball was kicked and their clash in Dublin will go a long way to deciding who will take the first spot.
Leinster lost the reverse fixture by a single point in what was one of the best games of the season, a six try epic when Maxime Medard (twice) and Sofiane Guitoune scored twice for the hosts whilst Sean O’Brien, James Ryan and Sean Cronin crossed to earn the visitors a losing bonus point that looked unlikely when they were 14-0 down after 20 minutes.
That performance from Toulouse was a marker for the progress they have made under Ugo Mola and they’ve continued in the same vein since, with eight wins from nine games. Included in those is a double against Wasps in December and perhaps their most impressive result was a 20-20 draw against Clermont, the Top 14 league leaders.
That was their fourth straight away game without defeat and they will face probably one of the toughest tests of the season for a Leinster side that has so rarely tasted defeat in recent times. They were runaway victories against Wasps and Bath at home in this competition, but Toulouse have also won both their games against those sides and on only one occasion have they failed to stay within the 11 points that they receive as a handicap start here.
Elsewhere, Edinburgh are on the verge of making it through to the quarter-finals and they might well do so with a victory against Toulon. Richard Cockerill has worked his magic there in no uncetain terms and they were hugely impressive when beating traditional Scottish powerhouses Glasgow both at home and away in the 1872 Cup, grinding out a brilliant victory at Scotscoun to join Saracens as the only side to win there this season.
Their set piece, led by hooker Stuart McInally, was brilliant throughought and they will be hoping to use that to good effect down on the French coast. Toulon were improved in a 23-12 defeat to Racing 92 and are slowly getting better this season, but Newcastle have already won at the Stade Mayol and La Rochelle and Racing 92 have taken victory from there this season. The visitors might be the bet with a modest start of 4.5 points on the No Draw handicap.
It’s hard to know what the motivations will be for Bath and Wasps, given that both are out in Pool 1 but anyone could take qualification from Pool 2. Munster, fresh from a fantastic interpro period over Christmas when they beat Leinster at home and Connacht away, will fancy their chances of taking a result from Gloucester after two defeats for the Southwesterners, but they do pack a punch as shown by their victory against Exeter in December.
A scrappy performance against Bristol takes some of the lustre away from backing Exeter to cover a 14.5-point handicap against Castres, whilst there have to be motivational concerns for Scarlets and Leicester.
Glasgow are expected to bounce back quickly against Cardiff from a couple of reverses but they might be best treated with some kid gloves for now, and Saracens should win at Lyon, but a 12-point handicap might just be enough for the hosts. Newcastle have generally shown their true colours in Europe compared to their lacklustre Premiership form and if that’s the case again a 17.5 point start would be very generous, but there’s a little risk in that.
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