European Champions Cup: Irish provinces gear up for decisive final weekend

Leinster, Ulster and Munster
Leinster, Ulster and Munster all reached the quarter-finals in last season's competition

As the pool stage of this season's European Champions Cup reaches its climax, three Irish provinces enter the final weekend with varying levels of optimism as they seek to advance to the quarter-finals.

Leinster have already booked their place while Ulster can join them with a win on Saturday.

It is not looking great for Munster who need lady luck to be smiling down on them, and several other teams, if they are to progress.

Connacht are the only province to be definitively out of the running having lost three of their five matches in pool five.

Here is a look at what the other three provinces will be hoping for in the last round of action from the Champions Cup group stage.

Leinster in pole position to clinch top seed

Eight months on from surrendering their European kingpin status to Saracens, Leinster are fighting back with a vengeance.

They have been peerless in all competitions and secured a home European quarter-final with a round to spare against Lyon last weekend.

European Champions Cup Pool One
PlayedWonLostPts DiffBonus PtsPoints
1. Leinster550105424
2. Northampton Saints532-29214
3. Lyon514-2137
4. Benetton514-5546

They currently hold the top seed, a position which if they keep means they will not only host a last eight tie, but will play their semi-final in Ireland should they progress.

Any win over Benetton on Saturday will guarantee top seed while there is a scenario, albeit unlikely, in which a defeat with two bonus points would be enough to put them through as number one.

The province will be confident of keeping hypotheticals out of the equation as they meet a Benetton side whose last eight chances are long gone.

Leinster have been imperious all season, winning all 15 of their matches with a number of young players catching the eye as the seemingly endless production line of talent at the RDS rolls on.

Leinster back rows Max Deegan and Caelan Doris
Young Leinster back rows Max Deegan and Caelan Doris were named in Ireland's Six Nations squad on Wednesday

In Europe no side has scored more points, while only Saracens and Toulouse have conceded fewer.

The test in Treviso is one Leinster should pass with some to spare as they continue their quest to regain their European crown.

Ulster hoping for a win and a Harlequins favour

The 29-13 scoreline suggests Ulster's defeat by Clermont last Saturday was a comprehensive one.

In the end, it was. The French side controlled the second half to run out worthy winners at Stade Marcel Michelin and seize control of pool three.

European Champions Cup Pool Three
PlayedWonLostPts DiffBonus PtsPoints
1. Clermont Auvergne54186420
2. Ulster54115117
3. Harlequins523-4519
4. Bath505-5644

However Ulster left France ruing a first half which should have yielded a bigger half-time advantage for the visitors.

Their one-point lead was a scarce reflection of the territory and possession they enjoyed but ultimately the decisions to go for the corner instead of kicking relatively easy penalties, and subsequent inability to convert those chances, cost Ulster.

With four wins already in the bag the result was more frustrating than it was devastating for the province, and a win against Bath will put them into the last eight for the second straight year.

But in order to finish top, Ulster rely on Harlequins doing them a favour at The Stoop.

Clermont's head-to-head advantage over Ulster means that they will top the pool with two losing bonus points, even if the Irish province secure all five points against Bath

However should Quins defeat Clermont and deny them any bonus points, any win for Ulster will set-up a quarter-final in Belfast.

Ulster celebrate their win over Bath
Ulster defeated Bath by a point in their Champions Cup opener

Ulster will be all too aware that they are still not guaranteed a quarter-final at all, with only three last eight spots available for the group runners-up with the most points.

If they lose, they could be overtaken by Saracens, Gloucester, Northampton and Glasgow and miss out on a last eight place.

Therefore Ulster will not be concerning themselves with events in London, knowing they must take care of their business themselves at the Kingspan Stadium.

Munster in need of a minor miracle

Even the most optimistic of Munster fans will know that their quarter-final hopes were most likely left in Paris, where Racing 92's three-try blitz in the final 10 minutes of last Sunday's encounter left Munster's European aspirations dangling over the cliff-edge.

Something was always going to have to give in this season's group of death. Saracens go into their last game against Racing needing a win in order to advance and continue to fight to retain their trophy.

Munster Racing 92
Munster were leading Racing 92 in Paris with 10 minutes to go last weekend

Should Sarries win that encounter at Allianz Park, all other results would become irrelevant and Munster, semi-finalists last season, would be out.

Two losing bonus points for Saracens would also send Munster packing, even if Johann van Graan's side claim a five-point win over Ospreys.

In short, Munster must secure all five points and hope at least three of Saracens, Gloucester, Glasgow and Northampton lose in order to force their way into the quarter-finals as one of the three best runners-up.

European Champions Cup Pool Four
PlayedWonLostDrawnPts DiffBonus PtsPoints
1. Racing 92540171422
2. Saracens532030214
3. Munster52210111
4. Ospreys5050-10122

The upshot is bleak for the province, and with Glasgow and Northampton both playing a day earlier, Munster's last eight hopes could be over before the players take to the field at Thomond Park on Sunday.

However, with Ospreys enduring a miserable European campaign with five losses from five, van Graan's side will at least hope to finish on a high with a big win in front of their own fans.

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