Champions Cup global wrap: Big four flex muscles

rugby15 January 2024 07:29| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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The penultimate round of the pool phase of the 2023/24 edition of the Investec Champions Cup saw a quartet of European heavyweights flex their muscles and confirm themselves as the teams to beat in the elite competition.

Bordeaux Begles wouldn’t have been ranked as a heavyweight at the start of the season but they are emerging as contenders as in round 3 they followed up their big wins in the first two rounds with a shuddering annihilation of English champions Saracens in the final game of an absorbing weekend in the European/South African competition.

That result emphatically earned them the right to be considered part of what now is a favoured quartet - Toulouse, Leinster, La Rochelle and themselves.

Bordeaux, the surprise package of the competition so far, will head to Pretoria this weekend for their final game against the Vodacom Bulls top of Pool 1 and with a massive points differential advantage on the other teams. They can still be pipped by Lyon in the quest for pole position, which could mean they will send their first choice side to South Africa.


If they do, what an appetising fixture it will be, for the Bulls were in awesome form in dispatching Bristol Bears on English soil at the weekend and will go into Saturday’s final pool game defending their unbeaten record at home in this competition. Indeed, with the DHL Stormers having done the business against the Sale Sharks at DHL Stadium at the weekend, winning in South Africa is a frontier that European teams have yet to cross in two years of competition.

Perhaps the closest that record came to being surrendered was when the Stormers had to rely on a last gasp Manie Libbok conversion to beat La Rochelle in Cape Town in December, but there again this past weekend showed just what an achievement that win was for the Stormers. La Rochelle almost arrogantly brushed aside the theory they were under pressure to keep their campaign in the Champions Cup alive when they thrashed Leicester Tigers on Sunday, and in so doing they sent out a massive statement.

Yet it was no more impressive a statement than the one Toulouse made away to Ulster on Saturday - the five time winners of the Champions Cup almost toyed with their Vodacom United Rugby Championship challenging opponents at a venue which is supposed to be tough for visiting teams.


Talking of the URC, however, it was generally a good weekend for the more favoured teams in that competition, with the two South African sides being joined in the winners column by Leinster, who toyed with Stade Francais at home in the same manner that Toulouse did Ulster in Belfast, and URC champions Munster.

Winning away against Toulon in such an important game proved Munster’s champion pedigree and keeps their challenge alive as they move from their previously parlous position into third in Pool 3. Their fellow URC challengers, Glasgow Warriors, lost narrowly away to Exeter Chiefs at the weekend but also remain in the bracket for an advance to the round of 16 as they take up fourth position in Pool 3 with a home game to come.

It is unclear at this stage whether the leaders of the group, Northampton Saints, rank among the group considered proper contenders to become champions of Europe, thus pushing it to five, but there can be no argument with the form they’ve shown and this weekend they swamped Bayonne with an exemplary exhibition of running rugby.


Total rugby might be the best way to describe La Rochelle, who are only fourth in Pool 4 behind Leinster, the Stormers and Leicester Tigers, but showed in their home game against the Tigers that they are going to be contenders again for the trophy they have won the last two seasons.

They do have some potential jeopardy ahead of them in the sense that if Sale beat them in Manchester at the weekend, they will drop out of the competition. However, on the form shown on Sunday, that would appear unlikely, and once La Rochelle are in the play-offs they will be a threat regardless of where the games are played.

So at this point it looks like the four teams we can consider favourites to win the competition are Toulouse, Leinster, Bordeaux and La Rochelle, perhaps in that order, with a clutch of English teams that remain unbeaten also still having an interest and the South African sides likely to be a threat if they clinch their goal of securing home advantage in the round of 16 next weekend.

The Stormers just need to win to be pretty assured of second position in Pool 4, but it won’t be easy as they travel to Paris to play Stade Francais, while the Bulls, currently third in Pool 1, will be relying on Saracens to beat Lyon, currently second, in order to make their clash with Bordeaux a quest for second and home advantage in that first playoff game.

The Bulls, with their power game and their pace easily nullifying the Bristol threat, made a massive statement about their chances of being challengers, while the Stormers, contending with a Sale Sharks team that went into the game with a negative mindset and just intent on stopping their opponents from playing, may yet live to regret the losing bonus point they gifted their opponents.


Northampton Saints 61 Bayonne 14
Exeter Chiefs 19 Glasgow Warriors 17
Lyon 34 Connacht 20
Bristol 17 Vodacom Bulls 3
1 Toulon 18 Munster 29
DHL Stormers 31 Sale Sharks 24
Leinster 43 Stade Francais 7
Ulster 24 Toulouse 48
Cardiff Rugby 15 Harlequins 54
Bath 29 Racing 92 25
La Rochelle 45 Leicester Tigers 12
Bordeaux Begles 55 Saracens 15


Newcastle Falcons 18 Benetton 57
Ospreys 25 Perpignan 3
Hollywoodbets Sharks 38 Oyonnax 7
Clermont Auvergne 38 Scarlets 17
Castres 28 Black Lion 6
Zebre 20 Dragons 17
Edinburgh 20 Gloucester 21
Montpellier 13 Emirates Lions 3
Toyota Cheetahs 20 Pau 33