Belfast Telegraph

How can Ulster reach the Champions Cup quarter-finals this weekend?

Iain Henderson
Iain Henderson
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

Having gone four-from-four in Europe so far this season, Ulster can almost taste the promised land of a return to the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals.

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Dan McFarland's side qualified for the last-eight for the first time since 2014 last season and are eager to make it back-to-back appearances in the knockouts this weekend when they take on ASM Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

It will be a tough ask for the province given Clermont's feared home atmosphere and their star-studded squad but, having won seven of their last eight games, Ulster are full of confidence.

The province currently lead Pool Three of the Champions Cup on 17 points, closely followed by Clermont on 16, with Harlequins and Bath already eliminated in third and fourth.

With the quarter-finals within touching distance, Ulster would love nothing more than to take a bit of the pressure off of next weekend's final pool game against Bath by securing their spot in the knockouts a week early.

How can they do it this weekend? Here, we assess how.

The easy way: win!

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In the family: Alan O’Connor goes on the run
 

No better way to secure your passage into the last-eight than by beating Clermont, sending out an emphatic message to the rest of Europe and getting another confidence booster for yourselves.

Should Ulster win at the Stade Marcel-Michelin then not only will they rubber-stamp their spot in the quarter-finals, they'll also ensure themselves of top spot in Pool Three.

That means a guaranteed top-five seeding and will give them a great chance of securing a home tie in the knockouts with a victory against Bath next weekend.

The not so easy way: a high-scoring draw

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John Cooney makes a break
 

Mathematically, Ulster need three points to guarantee their spot in the quarter-finals, and the only way they can do that without winning the game is by scoring a bonus point in a draw.

Now, how likely is that? Well, given that Clermont aren't adverse to a home draw and also love to concede points as much as they score, it could happen.

Add in the fact that Ulster are on an exceptional scoring run in recent weeks, picking up try bonus points in seven of their last eight games, and this isn't as fanciful as it may seem.

However, this seems to be the unlikeliest of all the scenarios possible this weekend. So I wouldn't recommend hanging your hat on this happening.

The 'we don't have to do anything' way

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Ulster will be hoping both Munster and Connacht struggle at the weekend
 

There is, in fact, a possibility that Ulster could be assured of a quarter-final berth without having to do a single thing themselves, although it would require a lot to go their way.

Ironically, it's a somewhat similar situation to the last time Ulster qualified for the knockouts while in Clermont, when they reached the quarter-finals back in 2011 thanks to Connacht beating Harlequins the night before Ulster had even played.

For the purposes of this one, we've ruled out the likelihood of a try bonus point draw for any of these sides, even though we've included it as a possibility for Ulster.

In order for Ulster to qualify this weekend regardless of their result in Clermont, they need TWO of the following scenarios to occur:

  • Pool One: Northampton Saints fail to win against Benetton
  • Pool Two: Glasgow Warriors fail to win against the Exeter Chiefs
  • Pool Four: Saracens take one point or less against Ospreys AND Munster fail to take anything against Racing 92
  • Pool Five: Gloucester fail to win against Montpellier AND Connacht fail to win against Toulouse

Of the four scenarios, the likeliest to happen seems to be in Pool Two as Glasgow take on Gallagher Premiership leaders the Chiefs at Scotstoun, but even that's no given since Glasgow are a quality side themselves.

Northampton failing to beat Benetton seems unlikely, but not impossible, while Saracens coming away from the woeful Ospreys with anything less than a draw seems unthinkable, even if they send a weakened side to Swansea.

In Pool Five, Toulouse doing the business against Connacht is definitely a possibility, but Gloucester unable to get over the line against already eliminated Montpellier at home seems fanciful.

Things become a bit easier if Ulster continue their run of getting at least something from their own games, but chances are Ulster's hopes of reaching the last-eight this weekend rest on them doing it themselves, barring a few teams doing them a favour elsewhere.

When are the key games Ulster are interested in this weekend?

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Line-up: (from left) Sale Sharks’ Jono Ross, Gloucester’s Ben Morgan, Northampton Saints’ Alex Waller, Munster’s Rory Scannell, Ospreys’ Dan Lydiate, Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton, Harlequins’ Chris Robshaw, Connacht’s Jarrad Butler, Glasgow Warriors’ Callum Gibbins, Benetton’s Alberto Sgarbi, Exeter Chiefs’ Sam Skinner, Ulster’s Iain Henderson and Bath’s Charlie Ewels at the Champions Cup launch at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff
 

Settle into your chairs folks, you're in for a long weekend if you want to keep track of all of these games.

It's Ulster themselves who kick things off on Saturday at 1pm against Clermont, although you're going to need split-screen because that's the same time Saracens face the Ospreys.

Straight after that it's another dual screen job as both the Glasgow Warriors and Connacht are in action at 3:15pm against the Exeter Chiefs and Toulouse respectively.

Saturday is rounded off by Gloucester welcoming Montpellier to Kingsholm at 5:30pm.

On Sunday, your action begins when Northampton Saints take on Benetton at 1pm, and the action concludes with Munster going to Racing 92 at 3:15pm.

Let's be positive here. Could Ulster get a home quarter-final this weekend?

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John Cooney celebrating with Matthew Rea
 

Ah, now there's positivity. And the answer is actually no.

Even if Ulster take the maximum haul from their game against Clermont, while they would guarantee themselves first in Pool Three, it still wouldn't be enough for a home quarter-final yet.

With all of the other pool leaders on at least 17 points, even if the other four all lost at the weekend, they could still overtake Ulster again next weekend with bonus point wins of their own and Ulster taking nothing against Bath.

So no matter what happens this weekend, Ulster's game against Bath will matter next Saturday. This weekend simply determines what's on the line at Kingspan Stadium.

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