Permutations: What Ulster need to qualify for knockout stages of European Champions Cup
After four straight pool exits, Ulster's back-to-back wins over Scarlets have given them a real chance of playing European rugby in the spring.
As Dan McFarland noted when asked just what his side would need to do in order to secure one of the three best-runners up spots and passage to the Champions Cup quarter-finals, the province are still in with a shout of topping the group and rendering any permutations academic.
It's all discussed in this week's Ulster Rugby Round Up podcast. Listen here:
- Ulster Rugby Round Up podcast S2E21: Wiehahn Herbst rumours, signing speculation and Racing to European knock-outs
Ulster currently have 14 points, five behind pool leaders Racing on 19. Assuming that Racing 92 maintain their position atop Pool Four, and Ulster can hit the magical mark of 19 points (no team has ever failed to progress with 19), here's who else the fans should be supporting when things wrap up next month:
It seems certain that two sides will be coming out from this pool. Champions Leinster are in second place on 15 points after suffering a defeat to Toulouse in round two but with both going well, and Wasps and Bath already out of things, the sides with eight titles between them will expect to be in the last eight. If Ulster fans were perhaps to have any rooting interest, a Toulouse victory when they travel to Leinster in round five would at least make it highly unlikely there's an Irish derby in the quarter-finals. Ulster's record away to Leinster means that will always feel like a preferable option. Even if Toulouse should lose though, they would expect to beat Bath in round six at home and progress regardless.
Likely outcome: Two teams progress
Even if being friendly neighbours doesn't usually cut the mustard, Ulster supporters will be Munster fans for the remainder of this pool where only one qualifier is the best bet. Thanks to both sets of back-to-backs being split, all four teams are still in mathematical contention. Munster beating Gloucester in Thomond Park next up would end the Premiership side's hopes, while Exeter beating Castres at home but suffering defeat in Limerick would ensure that only the presumptive pool winners have done enough to go through.
Likely outcome: One team progresses
Here's another one where two teams seem sure to be in the last eight. Lyon have been a disappointment while Cardiff were game against Saracens in the back-to-backs but ultimately took no points from the two games to end their own interest. Mark McCall's men will travel to Lyon while Glasgow host Cardiff in round five. Two wins for the favourites would likely leave them in a round six shootout to see who finishes top and who takes the consolation prize of a place as a best-runners up.
Likely outcome: Two teams progress
Ulster can still win the pool but likely would need ten points to do so with Racing the early frontliners and hosting an already out of things Scarlets in round six. Winning one game and taking something from the other when they host Racing and travel to Leicester next month would put UIster in a great position.
Likely outcome: We don't want to jinx it
Here is where things could get tricky for Ulster. If the province can get to 19 points, that takes Newcastle and Toulon out of the picture. But wins for Edinburgh and Ruan Pienaar's Montpellier in round five would present a situation where both sides could eclipse that total. In simple terms, an Edinburgh victory over Montpellier should be enough for five points to have Ulster where they need to be.
Likely outcome: Too close to call
And if it all ended today? Ulster would be the eight seed by virtue of points difference, meaning another trip to face Racing 92 in Paris, a game the hosts won 44-12. Interestingly the current seedings would see three of the four quarters in the last weekend in March represent a rematch from the pool stages. Much though, will be expected to change between now and the third weekend of January.
Belfast Telegraph Digital