A new year can be a time for both hope and sadness. Such is life, such is rugby. With four rounds of the European Champions Cup in the book the likelihood of that shiny new trophy heading to France is strong. Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse top their pools and are good value for it with Racing Metro in a strong runner-up position even without Jonathan Sexton for now. The odds of Les Racingmen making a quarter final are good, given they already have 14 points and are 27 point favourites against Treviso on Sunday.
Three runners up from five pools (as opposed to the Heineken Cup’s two from six) opens things up in terms of quarter final qualification. Pool 5 is clearly in the driving seat (via Racing) with Pool 3 (Harlequins, Leinster or Wasps) and Pool 1 (Saracens or Munster) next on the list.
European Rugby Champions Cup: Outright Betting
- 21/10 Toulon
- 7/2 Clermont
- 5/1 Northampton
- 6/1 Toulouse
- 12/1 Leinster, Saracens
- 14/1 Racing
- 30/1 Harlequins
- 55/1 Munster, Glasgow
- 66/1 Leicester, Bath
- 90/1 Wasps
No, Treviso, put your hand down. You too, Sale. And Castres, Ulster, Montpellier and Ospreys. The fat lady has sung. And it gets worse, as without the hope of parachuting into a Challenge Cup quarter final a team like Ulster has even less to play for than would have been the case in previous Heineken Cup seasons. That being said, unusually for a French side already out and playing away from home, Castres have picked a strong lineup to face Leinster so the latter might have some heavy lifting to do before having a look at an invaluable bonus point (and, importantly for this column, covering their 22-point handicap).
Saracens v Munster (Saturday 1pm)
It’s simple for Munster: lose and they’re out. Losing Conor Murray to injury for this crucial match at Allianz Park is a huge loss. Duncan Williams has been promoted to the starting lineup but, perhaps oddly, coach Anthony Foley is running without a reserve scrum half on the bench. Murray had been in excellent form this season, especially in the reverse fixture in Limerick when he was instrumental in keeping Saracens beginning possession deep in their own territory.
Both sides are currently third in their respective leagues with Saracens seven point favourites and 4/11 for the win.
- Saracens have won just 65% of their own scrum ball in the first four rounds, the lowest mark in the competition.
In the lineout, Munster are leaders in steals. Foley’s side will likely need to use that set piece to steal possession as Saracens have conceded the lowest number of turnovers in the Champions Cup. The talented and Northampton-bound JJ Hanrahan being left on the bench doesn’t help Munster’s chances of a 2/1 win; one might have thought a fast plastic track would particularly suit him. Saracens to win.
Toulon v Ulster (Saturday, 3.15pm, 4.15pm local)
If Ulster’s loss to Toulon at Ravenhill in round two hadn’t sealed their fate, losing to Scarlets in round four certainly did so. The Ulstermen are done and dusted for this season’s competition and without the carrot of a Challenge Cup semi final they’ll rely on pride to get them up for one of rugby’s toughest fixtures.
- At the set piece, based on Opta’s numbers Ulster’s scrum has had a poor 72% success rate while they’ve lost an average of 3.5 lineouts per game, worst in the tournament alongside Treviso and Sale.
Toulon blew Ulster away at the breakdown in Belfast and, given the superiority of the Toulon pack, it will likely happen again. Toulon for the win is a 1/25 certainty and covering their 16-point handicap is, unfortunately for Rory Best’s Ulster side, eminently achievable.
Ospreys v Northampton (Sunday, 5.30pm)
Top of the Premiership faces top of the Pro12 as the Ospreys attempt to keep their european season relevant. With just eight points from four games a Welsh win is vital to keep them alive. Unfortunately they face a Northampton team who’ll want to maintain their push for a home quarter final. Saints are four point favourites. Take it.