2024 Stade Rochelais vs Leicester Tigers

Three Bold Predictions For Final Rounds Of The Investec Champions Cup

Three Bold Predictions For Final Rounds Of The Investec Champions Cup

As the Champions Cup returns for its final two rounds of pool play, there are some cliffhangers to solve upon its return, setting the stage for some chaos.

Jan 12, 2024 by Briar Napier
Three Bold Predictions For Final Rounds Of The Investec Champions Cup

Welcome back, Champions Cup rugby. We missed you.

OK, maybe Europe and South Africa’s top club rugby competition wasn’t gone for very long, but now that it's time for the second half of the pool stage of the 2023-2024 campaign, there sure are a lot of cliffhangers to solve upon its return.

Back to action this weekend with Round 3 of the pool stages, some clubs could seal their fates — in both good and bad ways — with stellar or poor performances, respectively. 

A few surprises usually are in store for each round of play, too. With the tension only ramping up, and so much to play for, the chaos created could wreak havoc on the field.

It’s time to get a bit wild, and maybe it’s worthwhile to expect the unexpected.

Here are three bold predictions for the final two rounds of the Champions Cup — and how they could impact the Round of 16, which will follow later in the year:

La Rochelle Will Miss The Knockouts

The two-time defending Champions Cup winners are in serious danger of being booted out of the competition before the Round of 16. La Rochelle suffered a winless start to play in Pool D, and it must find points across the final two weekends to secure its spot in the knockouts. 

Les Maritimes do seem to be on a bit of an upward trajectory as of late, but even with more winnable fixtures to close pool play - they’ll encounter an English 1-2 combo of the Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks - qualification is far from certain, considering how up and down La Rochelle has been domestically and abroad this season. 

French rival and fellow Pool D team, Stade Francais — which ranks above La Rochelle in the Top 14 ladder — struggled against the English sides in the first two rounds of pool play, being battered by Sale 28-5 in the opening weekend and narrowly losing to Leicester by a 27-24 margin in Paris. The latter at least got Stade Francais a bonus point, but the squad still hasn't been able to escape being anchored to the bottom of the pool’s table. 

Does a similar fate await coach Ronan O’Gara’s side? 

On the one hand, it could allow his squad to focus more on the domestic season and recover in a stronger way for a pushback up the Top 14 standings, considering that La Rochelle is a disappointing eighth (even with two straight wins) at the moment. 

On the other hand, this also is a club that had no problems juggling the demands of the Top 14 with a deep continental run previously, as it has made each of the past three Champions Cup finals, beating Leinster in 2022 and 2023 for the French team’s first major trophies. 

As for how an early La Rochelle exit would change the complexion of the knockout rounds … well, the previously dominant holder being out of the picture probably says enough on its own, doesn’t it?

Only Two Irish Teams Will Advance

The always-powerful Leinster is all but certain to return to the Round of 16 after taking care of business against La Rochelle and Sale in Pool D. However, it's probably the only sure thing about Irish rugby right now in the Champions Cup. 

The country had, all in all, a shaky first two rounds in the competition.

Munster drew with French debutant Bayonne, before losing to the Exeter Chiefs. Ulster had an impressive bonus-point win against Top 14 leader Racing 92 counteracted by a loss to Bath. Connacht allowed a combined 96 points in loss to Bordeaux and Saracens, leaving the Galway club four points and a wide scoring differential away from the knockouts going into Round 3. 

With Connacht’s elimination possibly coming as soon as an away trip to a strong Lyon side, Ulster and Munster are set to be the Irish sides with something to prove in the final two matches of the pool stage. 

For the Belfast side, even though they’re in the safe zone with five points sitting tied for third place, a Toulouse squad that has romped through the competition will visit Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium, followed by a Round 4 showdown with possible knockout-round qualification on the line against Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop. 

Meanwhile, at Munster, a draw to French debutant Bayonne and a loss at Sandy Park to the Exeter Chiefs, has left it in a pickle of its own, though a Round 3 meeting with sputtering Toulon before a pool-stage finale against the Northampton Saints makes the club’s outlook a little rosier.

But, Munster’s recent form — with losses to provincial rivals Leinster and Connacht in URC play on top of the Champions Cup results — leaves a lot to be desired, too. 

We’ll roll with Ulster, no stranger to European success as two-time Champions Cup finalist, as the one to join Leinster in the Round of 16 from Ireland, but the number qualified from the country will remain at only two.

Bordeaux Will Be The Knockout Round’s Top Seed

Have Bordeaux been fun to watch so far in the Champions Cup or what? 

On an absolute flyer through two matches in the competition, Les Girondins are on 10 points with a +55 scoring differential, even on points with and sitting only behind Top 14 adversary Toulouse in the latter category. 

Well, what if Bordeaux simply decided to not be satisfied with a top-tier knockout-round seed and went for the throne? 

There’s a window of opportunity for the club to take advantage and burst forward as a member of the shortlist of favourites to win the entire competition, and it would all start with coach Yannick Bru’s men finishing the pool stage with a flurry. 

The club will host Saracens first in Round 3, with the London-based club dealing with critical injury issues in the front row, which have seen it recently sign 36-year-old Samoan prop Logovi’i Mulipola (formerly of Leicester and the Newcastle Falcons) as a fill-in. 

Bordeaux could get five points if it strikes and overwhelms Saracens with its blistering pace and attacking prowess led by the likes of superstar winger Damian Penaud and rapid youngster Louis Bielle-Biarrey, and the No. 1 overall seed for the Round of 16 could very much be up for grabs a week later when an imposing task arrives for Bordeaux’s pool-stage finale — a visit to Loftus Versfeld to play the Bulls in Pretoria. 

Here’s the kicker, though: Bulls coach Jake White has opted not to make Springboks Canan Moodie, Willie le Roux, Marco van Staden and Kurt-Lee Arendse available for selection for the next two Champions Cup rounds, giving them compulsory off time as mandated by the South African Rugby Union. 

It’s a gamble that may be to Bordeaux’s gain, even in an imposing atmosphere, and may well be its ticket to a much more favourable knockout-round path with a victory, too.