the sad prospects of French clubs for the round of 16
The Top 14 could only have two representatives – Toulouse and La Rochelle, already qualified – in the final tournament of the European Cup.
For two years and the health crisis due to Covid, the Champions Cup has changed its formula. With a reduction in the number of group matches but the introduction of the round of 16. Until then, he had rather smiled at the Top 14 teams as in 2021 and 2022 no less than seven teams qualified for the final stages of the European Cup. Better, each time, there were three French clubs in the semi-finals for two tricolor coronations (Toulouse then La Rochelle).
This season, change of scenery. If Toulouse and Rochelais – unbeaten after three days – held the table, the other French formations are struggling. And the chances of having just two teams in the round of 16 (played in a single match, as opposed to the 2022 home-and-away format) are significant.
During the first three days, if we put aside the flawless results of Rouge et Noir and Maritimes, there were only three French wins in 18 games. Castres, who has historically never made continental matches a priority, has already been eliminated after three setbacks. More than worrying.
Lyon, Montpellier and UBB on a thread
Lyon are currently badly placed, only 10th in group A. A success against the Bulls of Pretoria, this Friday (21:00) in Gerland, could be enough to reach the final stages. But, at the same time, LOU need to knock on the wood in order for top-placed Racing and Gloucester not to win against Leinster and UBB respectively. Which seems largely playable (read below). However, the South African Bulls – winners of a completely insane match in the first leg (42-36) – will play hard with the hope of playing an eighth on their soil. “We don’t have our fate in our hands but if we win this game by improving it, I think we can watch the weekend’s games with relative equanimity,” however the Rodano coach Xavier Garbajosa advances.
Despite his two setbacks against the Ospreys (the last one with the offensive and defensive bonuses), MHR (7th in Group B) can still reach the finals. This will require the reigning French champion to win at home against London Irish (11th), already eliminated after three defeats. Largely in the strings of Philippe Saint-André’s players.
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For Union Bordeaux-Bègles, only 11th in group A, things will be a bit more complicated. It’s an unofficial sixteenth-final that the Girondins will play on Saturday (16:15) in Chaban-Delmas, against the English from Gloucester (9th). Problem: one win might not be enough as Lyon (10th) and/or Racing 92 (8th) shouldn’t win at the same time. Before picking up an injury and missing out on the upcoming Six Nations tournament, Bordeaux scrum-half Maxime Lucu believed in qualification: “With two points scored in the first two days, we are still in contention. We will definitely have to take 5 points against Gloucester to qualify, so it’s still a target.
Mission impossible for Racing and Clermont?
With the success snatched against the Harlequins at the Arena, the Parisians (8th in Group A) are still alive in this competition. Except for that Saturday (4.15pm), Racing will have to climb Everest and win in Dublin against the impressive province of Leinster (15 games, 15 wins in all competitions this season), the only team to have signed three bonus victories in this European Cup.
All of this seems mission impossible for Laurent Travers’ players, inconsistent this season and swept away in the first leg (10-42, match relocated to Le Havre) by these same Irishmen. The European Cup was one of the declared goals of the Altosquanais club (unfortunate finalist in 2016, 2018 and 2020), for this year it seems to have failed. “Either we remobilize before going to Leinster, or we take 40 there. It’s up to us to raise our heads to pass”wants to believe the international center Gaël Fickou.
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Same problem of inconstancy by Clermont (8th in group B). The Auvergne-based club has been shaken since the start of the season by non-sporting problems: departure of Damian Penaud, complaining fans, departure of Jono Gibbes and arrival next week of Christophe Urios. How will the Jaunards be in when they take on the Stormers (4th) in Cape Town? They could be beaten to the wire by Sale (9th) and Ulster (10th) who will face off on Saturday (21:00) in Belfast. Above all, the current priority of ASM – unfortunate finalist in 2013, 2015 and 2017 – is clearly the recovery in the Top 14 where it is only 10th.
Chewed banknotes from South Africa
For the first time in the history of the Champions Cup, three South African provinces joined the competition this year, having successfully joined the United Rugby Championship (ex-Celtic League). For more than convincing results, given that these three teams are in a good position to reach the round of 16. Of the nine matches played, teams from the Southern Hemisphere have won seven, while the Durban Sharks are unbeaten (2nd in Pool A), the Pretoria Bulls (6th in Pool A) and the Cape Stormers (4th in Pool B) they have suffered just one defeat in three games, against Exeter (44-14) and Clermont (24-14) respectively.
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The return matches this weekend between Lyon and the Bulls, and between the Stormers and ASM, will be crucial for these two French sides. And this could confirm the trend: the South African teams, who arrived in force to compete in the Champions Cup, are now overtaking the tricolor formations. And take place in the final stage. Yannick Bru, currently an assistant at the Sharks before joining UBB next year, had announced it clearly at the beginning of the season: “This year the ambition of all the franchises is precisely to bring back the trophies, especially in the Champions Cup. The ambition is total.»
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