Champions Cup: Expect Celts to ride revival wave to the top | Rugby Union | Sport

1 month ago

Ten games, spread over two days, all relevant to who makes it through to the quarter-finals. It is a couch potato’s dream, so feign flu symptoms, declare yourself contagious for a 48-hour period and soak it all up.

So far only one team has definitely made the knockout stages – Leinster. By Sunday evening, when the stock car race is run and the full picture will have revealed itself, it will be a surprise if there isn’t an Irish full house with Munster and Ulster also top of their pools heading into round six.

In what has been a revivalist tournament for the Celts, the Welsh – who have not provided a quarter-finalist for six years – are also in decent shape with the Scarlets and the Ospreys knowing wins today will take them through.

The Scarlets, who yesterday named Leigh Halfpenny on the bench for their home decider against Toulon, will have the backing of what is expected to be a 14,500 sell-out crowd in Llanelli today, but the Ospreys will have to do it the hard way in Clermont.

A visit to the Stade Marcel Michelin, where Clermont have lost just once in Europe in the past nine seasons, is an appointment with a cliff face but Wales stand-off Dan Biggar fancies the Ospreys to scale it after the confidence-boosting draw with Saracens last weekend.

“At the start of the pool stages we were grouped with what have been by far the two best sides in Europe in recent seasons and a tough Northampton side. If someone had offered us the chance to still be alive headed into the final weekend we’d have snapped their hand off,” said Biggar.

“Clermont haven’t been firing on all cylinders. Saracens came fully loaded and for us to go toe to toe with them has given the boys a big spring in their step.”

That result has left the holders on the edge. They shoot for maximum points at Allianz Park against a Northampton side who have George North back on the bench after three weeks out knowing even five points may not be sufficient to progress.

“The one thing we can control is getting five points this weekend,” said Saracens hooker Jamie George.

“But the focus has been more on fixing what went wrong against the Ospreys. It wasn’t nice looking back at a performance like that. It was very frustrating watching it again. Our pride has been dented and we want to put in a performance that we’re very proud of.”

There are no guarantees either for Bath – whose stand-off Rhys Priestland has been ruled out for six weeks with hamstring damage – even with the anticipated bonus-point win in Treviso, and still fewer for Wasps who take on Ulster at the Ricoh Arena tomorrow.

The Premiership’s best bet are Exeter, although the return of Stuart Hogg to the Glasgow side today after two months out is not the best timing for the Chiefs.

Two years ago they made it through to the quarter-finals when, 400 miles away, Morgan Parra – bamboozled by the brain-frying permutations of this singular weekend – opted to run rather than kick a penalty in front of the posts.

“The last time we were in this position we went through in some remarkable circumstances,” said Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter.

“We have to attack this weekend in a very similar manner and not worry too much about things that are happening anywhere else.”

Easier said than done on rugby’s ultimate rubber-necking weekend.