European Champions Cup reaching critical stage

Two of England’s traditional rugby powerhouses Leicester Tigers and Bath both face a make or break weekend in the European Rugby Champions Cup.

Just eight teams from the five groups will progress to the knock out phases or the quarter finals which means that the five group winners and three best runners up will stay alive.

As it stands currently the two two second-placed sides outside of the top eight are Leicester who won back to back tournaments in 2001 and 2002 and Bath who were the first English side to win a European Rugby title in 1998..

Leicester Tigers situation is particularly drastic as their eight points leaves them five points off the current qualifying standard.

Anything less than a bonus-point victory at home to Scarlets on Friday night would virtually ensure they miss out on the last eight, assuming reigning champions Toulon maintain their dominance in Pool 3.

Bath are only a couple of points better off but have picked up their form after a difficult start to the competition saw them get hammered in Glasgow and then lose at home to record four-time champions Toulouse.

They travel to the south-west of France on Sunday knowing that they also need a bonus-point victory at the Ernest-Wallon stadium where Toulouse rarely lose, although they went down 16-14 there to Irish province Connacht last season.

It’s also not so long ago since an English side in Harlequins came away from Toulouse with a 31-24 success in December 2011.

Toulouse centre Yann David is therefore not taking the Bath challenge lightly.

“Of course we’re approaching this match as if it was in the knock-out stages. It’s going to be a very difficult match against a huge team that have been very impressive in their domestic league,” he said.

“We would really like to win because that would guarantee our place in the knock-out stages.”

Toulouse are one of several sides who could do exactly that with victory.

The others are fellow French Top 14 representatives Clermont and Racing-Metro, who host hapless Italians Treviso in Pool 5, while Northampton could likewise progress.

All of those would guarantee they qualify for the quarter-finals with a bonus point victory, although in Toulouse’s case any victory would be enough.

Others, such as Toulon, Harlequins, Leinster, Saracens and even Wasps know that a victory could see them qualify but there are so many permutations as to make speculation useless until after Sunday’s final matches have ended.

Last season’s finalists Saracens face a crunch clash with Munster at the Allianz Park in London on Saturday knowing that victory not only would put a potential title-rival in Munster out of the competition, but is necessary for the club’s own progression hopes as their final Pool 1 clash is away to Clermont.

They have good news, though, as England backs Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt are back for the crunch clash.

“It’s a massive boost having Brad back, we haven’t seen him since the autumn. To get a player of his quality back for a game like this is massive,” McCall said.

He also defended Farrell, who has come in for some criticism this season after a poor showing in the autumn tests.

“He’d only had one game of rugby going into the All Blacks match and that turned out to not be enough,” added McCall.

One entire country that comes into this weekend under pressure is Ireland, who won five out of seven European titles from 2006 to 2012.

Ulster, champions in 1999, look certain to miss out on the knock-out stages as they must secure a bonus point victory away to Toulon on Saturday to retain even the faintest hope.

Likewise, twice former champions Munster would need a five-point haul at Saracens, so it may boil down to three-time winners Leinster to keep the emerald flag flying.

They should defeat already-eliminated Castres at home on Saturday where a bonus point could also see them through.

If not, they would face a tricky trip to Coventry to tackle Wasps in their final Pool 2 match.

Weekend fixtures.

Friday (all times GMT)

Pool 3

Leicester (ENG) v Scarlets (WAL) (1945)

Saturday

Pool 1

Saracens (ENG) v Munster (IRL) (1300)

Sale (ENG) v Clermont (FRA) (1730)

Pool 2

Leinster (IRL) v Castres (FRA) (1730)

Harlequins (ENG) v Wasps (ENG) (1945)

Pool 3

Toulon (FRA) v Ulster (IRL) (1615)

Sunday

Pool 4

Glasgow (SCO) v Montpellier (FRA) (1300)

Toulouse (FRA) v Bath (ENG) (1615)

Pool 5

Ospreys (WAL) v Northampton (ENG) (1730)

Racing-Metro (FRA) v treviso (ITA) (1830)

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