Premiership Rugby

Five Talking Points For Round 4 Of The Investec Champions Cup Pool Stage

Five Talking Points For Round 4 Of The Investec Champions Cup Pool Stage

Half of the 16 knockout-round slots remain up for grabs in the Champions Cup with just one pool stage match left to play. Things are about to get wild.

Jan 19, 2024 by Briar Napier
Five Talking Points For Round 4 Of The Investec Champions Cup Pool Stage

The final fixtures of the Champions Cup pool stage are upon us, and do we ever have some stuff to clear up.

The competition’s rekindled format has resulted in there being a whole host of storylines and fixtures full of tension before the knockout-round teams officially are confirmed. 

There is a lot at stake, and for those fighting for places in the next round to avoid being sent down to the Challenge Cup or being gone from European play entirely, the matches ahead mean everything.

Strap in and enjoy the ride; the spectacle that is the Champions Cup is only going to get more exciting from here.

Here’s a look at five major talking points for the final round of the Champions Cup pool stage this weekend as the final open spots in the Round of 16 will be decided:

Plenty To Play For

Of the 16 knockout-round slots available, eight teams have confirmed their places in the next round of the competition with a match to spare. 

The final eight spots, meanwhile, will see nearly every remaining team in the Champions Cup enter Round 4 of the pool stages with something up for grabs. 

The eight teams that have clinched berths for the Round of 16 — Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse, Bath, Harlequins, Northampton, Exeter and Leinster — don’t need to do anything else in Round 4 to advance, while Stade Francis (anchored to the bottom of Pool D on just one point) can’t do anything else to advance as the competition’s only eliminated team as of this writing.

That leaves 15 clubs vying for eight spots — and plenty of surefire drama on the horizon as pool play closes. 

Matches with huge implications will be everywhere on the fixture list this weekend, but here are a few examples for your viewing pleasure: 

  • Toulon needs a win against the still-not-clinched Glasgow Warriors (plus likely some additional help from the Chiefs in beating Top 14 rival Bayonne) in Scotstoun to keep its knockout-round hopes alive in Pool C.
  • Two-time defending champion La Rochelle will try to stave off a stunning miss of the Round of 16 and get a result in Salford against the Sale Sharks in Pool D.
  • Racing 92 will try to avoid being both Top 14 leaders and bottom of Pool B against Cardiff, with both the French and Welsh clubs sitting outside the top 4 in the pool as of this writing.

The New Favorites

Remember how we predicted that Bordeaux would finish as the top seed in the knockout rounds and make a statement toward being the Champions Cup’s favorite with a strong end-of-pool stage push? 

After Round 3, at least, that call aged like fine wine. 

Les Girondins officially booked their place in the knockout stage with a 55-15 thrashing of Saracens at the Stade Chaban-Delmas last weekend, with the star wing partnership of rising superstar Louis Bielle-Biarrey and already established superstar Damina Penaud each picking up braces in a nine-try haul for Bordeaux — all while handling Saracens the worst European defeat in the team's history. 

Bordeaux’s attack is scary-good, with No. 10 Matthieu Jalibert also deserving of praise for a brilliant individual performance in Round 3, and with 15 points and a plus-95 scoring differential through three Champions Cup matches, only the near equally impressive Toulouse in Pool B (15 points, plus-97 differential) has statistically been better in the pool stages. 

A beating of a weakened Bulls side, even in the imposing Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, could seal the deal for Bordeaux being given a favorable knockout-round draw as the top seed or close to it. Regardless, coach Yannick Bru’s side looks near-unbeatable when everything is clicking, and everything definitely is clicking at the minute.

What Second Stringers?

Speaking of Bordeaux’s opponents, the Bulls and coach Jake White raised some eyebrows when White opted to rest Springboks Marco van Staden, Canan Moodie, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Willie le Roux for the final two rounds of Champions Cup pool stage play in order to comply with the South Africa Rugby Union’s mandated five-week club break for all Springboks. 

Though White was complying with the rules, just like every South African club will have to at some point, the timing of the decision was the more head-scratching part to some, as many others likely will sit their stars in March. 

Sending a weakened side to Ashton Gate to face the Bristol Bears, the Bulls — instead of getting rocked on foreign soil — went out and got an impressive bonus-point win over the Premiership club to put them one step closer to qualifying for the Round of 16 out of Pool A, even though high-flying Bordeaux won’t make it easy for them in Round 4. 

Still, the Bulls’ effectiveness when they had to turn to their depth and produce was eye-opening; if they do indeed qualify for the knockouts — which appears likely, as they’re on 10 points and in third place, five ahead of both Bristol and Saracens — and get a well-rested and full-strength side back for the elimination games, watch out.

Alldritt Crucial For La Rochelle

La Rochelle was drifting dangerously close to turning into a laughingstock from a powerhouse, with the two-time reigning Champions Cup winner losing its first two pool-stage matches and having many wonder if relegation to the Challenge Cup — or even a disastrous elimination from European competition all together — was in the cards for Les Maritimes. 

But the return of No. 8 Gregory Alldritt to Champions Cup play after a post-Rugby World Cup break was needed, and his impact on La Rochelle’s important 45-12 victory over the Leicester Tigers at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre was crucial. 

The newly named France captain for the Six Nations (taking over for Antoine Dupont, who will miss the annual international tournament as he works with France’s Sevens side preparing for the Summer Olympics this year in Paris) was brilliant in his European return and arguably the player of the round. He looked rejuvenated from his hiatus and helped the French giants pick up a critical first win in the pool stages. 

La Rochelle looked to be much closer to the team that had run riot across the Champions Cup each of the past two years, and Alldritt’s presence unquestionably was a major reason behind that change.

Sarries, Bears Must Bounce Back

England’s two clubs in Pool A, Saracens and the Bristol Bears, had rounds to forget last weekend, as both were beaten in deflating ways that already have been discussed at length in this article. 

Keep in mind, neither of those clubs have clinched spots in the knockout round, either, and misfortune seems to be piling up one thing at a time each way. 

With the Sarries (facing a Lyon squad that already qualified), which made the quarterfinals a season ago, before losing to eventual champion La Rochelle, they’re looking increasingly likely to lose club legend Owen Farrell to an overseas side (reportedly Racing 92, which has been reported elsewhere to have made an offer for the England captain) sooner than later. 

Meanwhile in Bristol, the Bears’ loss at home against a second-tier Bulls side didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and though a final pool-play fixture against last-place Connacht is a favorable matchup, the Bears likely need a bonus point to feel good about advancing — and the Irish province gets bulldozer Bundee Aki and prop Finlay Bealham, both full Ireland internationals called up for the Six Nations, back on the side for the final round, too. 

It’s not quite time to hit the panic button if you’re Bristol or Saracens, but each club could quickly be starting to scramble to sound the alarms soon if they’re not careful.