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Rugby union: talking points from the weekend’s Champions Cup action

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2020-01-13 Guardian sport
Taqele Naiyaravoro, Danny Cipriani playing football on a field: From left: Hassane Kolingar and Boris Palu of Racing 92; Taqele Naiyaravoro of Northampton; Danny Cipriani of Gloucester © Action Images/Getty Images From left: Hassane Kolingar and Boris Palu of Racing 92; Taqele Naiyaravoro of Northampton; Danny Cipriani of Gloucester

Pool 1: Northampton show their worth but Treviso will be tough

A sure sign of a good team is one that keeps winning convincingly even when not entirely striking its best form. Leinster currently fit that description, seeing off Lyon by a 28-point margin in the absence of Johnny Sexton, among others. This was their 15th win in 15 competitive fixtures this season – 10 of them in the Pro 14 – and they have a squad whose depth is steadily increasing. In Max Deegan they have another fine prospect at No 8 where Caelan Doris has already forced himself into the Six Nations reckoning and they will be a daunting prospect for any opponent heading to Dublin in the quarter-finals. All that is now required to rubber-stamp a quarter-final in Dublin is a solid result in Treviso, although the Italian side are becoming increasingly hard to beat at home. They might also have beaten Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens but for untimely injuries to key men and the force of nature that is the massive Taqele Naiyaravoro.

Pool 2: Exeter are slowly getting it right in Europe

There is no substitute for the hard yards. It seems a team must simply do their time in this competition before they start to get the hang of it. Exeter represent as poignant an illustration of this truth as any. This is their seventh attempt and the first time they have qualified for the quarter-finals in a manner that might be described as “under control”. They did qualify as group winners in 2016 with a mere three victories, tied on 16 with two others in one of the most outlandish pools ever known. This time they will progress to a home quarter-final if they beat La Rochelle at Sandy Park on Saturday. Glasgow are not quite out of it but need to win at Sale and hope other results go their way.

• Match report: Glasgow 31-31 Exeter

a large clock mounted to the side: Exeter drew at Glasgow. Photograph: David Gibson/Fotosport/REX/Shutterstock © Fotosport/REX/Shutterstock Exeter drew at Glasgow. Photograph: David Gibson/Fotosport/REX/Shutterstock

Pool 3: Clermont can take advantage of slack English sides

There has been something processional about this season’s competition, with a shortfall in the kind of ferocious, scrambling drama we have come to expect from it. That Clermont Auvergne are the stragglers among the pool leaders with a round to go and as many as 20 match points is indicative. Bar Exeter, the English have not really turned up (see the meek showing by the pair in this pool), paving the way for any well-stocked team who fancy it to have their way. Clermont will hope Harlequins maintain the ambivalent English approach for Saturday’s encounter at the Stoop. Ulster ought to win at home to Bath, so are ready to step in should Quins rouse themselves, but a best-runners-up spot is their likeliest reward.

Pool 4: Racing 92 and Saracens have it all to play for

Racing 92’s bonus-point victory over Munster delivered the pool title and left the Irish province all but eliminated. Racing trailed for long periods but the strength of their bench gave them the means to pull away with three tries in the final 10 minutes. Racing may require something from their final match at Saracens on a day when the holders need to win to have a chance of going through as one of the best runners-up, vying with Gloucester and Northampton, who also have 14 points but both finish their campaigns in France. Glasgow are also in the mix on 12 points but Munster’s failure to leave Paris with a bonus point means they need Saracens to secure no more than one on Sunday, take five off the Ospreys and have other results go their way. If Sarries go through, they could find themselves in Exeter in the last eight.

• Match report: Ospreys 15-22 Saracens

Pool 5: Cipriani injury hurts Gloucester when it matters

If Gloucester fail to progress in Europe this season they will not have to look far for the reasons. They sent a weakened side to Montpellier and lost 30-27 and also went down by three points to Connacht in Galway, leaving themselves the tricky task of winning in Toulouse this Sunday. It does not help that their key playmaker Danny Cipriani limped off on Saturday with a sore-looking lower leg injury, nor that Toulouse are one of only two teams to have won all their five pool games thus far. The good news is that, if selected, Jake Polledri will make sizeable dents in any defence and their 18-year-old wing Louis Rees-Zammit looks a threat in any company. So good has the fleet-footed newcomer been in recent weeks that it will a surprise if Wales do not include him in their Six Nations squad to be named on Wednesday, if only to sidestep any possibility of England nipping in and trying to poach the Penarth-born flyer themselves.

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