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European weekend preview: Crunch time in race for qualification

The pool stages of the European Champions Cup wrap up this weekend and while eight teams are already safely through to the last-16, there are another eight places still up for grabs.

Five sides have already secured passage through to the next round in Pool A and of the remaining seven sides, only Castres are out of the qualification equation. 

Pool B is even tighter with only three teams through and the rest still in with a mathematical chance of advancing. 

Of the English teams, Leicester are safely through but there’s work to be done by Harlequins, Sale and Gloucester, while London Irish and Northampton are in need of minor miracles with daunting games against La Rochelle and Montpellier respectively to come. 

As well as qualification for the knockout phase being on the line, there’s also the small matter of teams fighting to secure home advantage for the round of 16, which will be secured via a top-four finish. 

One of those sides eyeing a home knockout game is Leicester, but they face a tricky test against an improving Ospreys side. 

Tigers chasing top spot

WhatLeicester Tigers v Ospreys
WhereMattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium, Leicester
When20:00, Friday 20th January 2023
How to watchBT Sport 1 & S4C
OddsLeicester 1/5, Ospreys 7/2

Two of the star performers from round three of the Champions Cup open up the final slate of pool matches in an intriguing clash at Welford Road on Friday night. 

Leicester snapped a recent poor run of form in stunning fashion as they romped to a 44-29 victory away to Clermont. 

The Tigers made a mockery of Clermont being one of the toughest places to go in European rugby as they ran in five tries to secure a place in the last-16. 

The English champions are level on points with Champions Cup holders La Rochelle and Toulouse at the top of Pool B, but only three points clear of Stormers and Friday’s opponents Ospreys so can’t afford any slip ups. 

Ospreys are on the verge of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup for the first time in over a decade after completing a famous double over French champions Montpellier in Swansea last time out. 

Toby Booth’s men overcame a full-strength Montpellier side to firm up their spot in the top eight and will be out for revenge against Leicester, who narrowly won the reverse fixture in matchday one. 

Ospreys have been brilliant in their two matches against Montpellier with the likes of Justin Tipuric, Alex Cuthbert and Cai Evans producing standout performances and they could run a Leicester side that’s been a little unpredictable since Steve Borthwick’s departure. 

The Welsh side are 10/11 with an 11.5-point start on the handicap.

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Quins swimming in dangerous waters

WhatHarlequins v Sharks
WhereTwickenham Stoop, London
When13:00, Saturday 21st January 2023
How to watchBT Sport 2
OddsHarlequins 4/7, Sharks 11/8

Harlequins were on the wrong end of the outcome in the pick of the round three matches as they lost a pulsating clash with Racing 92 30-29, leaving them needing a win over the Sharks to reach the last-16. 

England fly-half Marcus Smith produced an inspired performance on his return from an ankle injury as Quins pushed their star-studded opponents close. 

Smith was one of several key players to make a timely comeback for Quins in Paris, along with Joe Marler and Wilco Louw, and they’ll need the physicality of the latter duo to combat a powerful Sharks pack. 

Although the Sharks are missing South Africa hooker Bongi Mbonambi for the visit to London, the travelling party still features several Springboks, including national team skipper Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth. 

The Sharks have taken the Champions Cup by storm in their maiden campaign, securing a spot in the knockout phase with three straight wins, including a try-filled 39-31 triumph over Harlequins at home. 

The Sharks are more than capable of ruining Quins’ last-16 aspirations and given the home side’s tendency to get involved in close games - only one of Harlequins’ last eight games have been settled by a double-digit margin - the visitors appeal as a 3.5-point underdog at 10/11.

Win-or-bust for Gloucester

WhatBordeaux v Gloucester
WhereStade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux
When15:15, Saturday 21st January 2023
How to watchBT Sport 3
OddsBordeaux 4/9, Gloucester 7/4

Gloucester will be glad to see the back of Champions Cup favourites Leinster after losing their two pool stage matches to the Irish side by an aggregate score of 106-14. 

A trip to Bordeaux should prove more winnable with the hosts having lost all three of their games to date, and the Cherry and Whites look lively underdogs at 7/4.  

Two hammerings by Leinster has left Gloucester needing a win to reach the last-16, while two losing bonus points for Bordeaux, including the one they collected in a 22-17 defeat at Kingsholm, means they are still in the qualification mix. 

Bordeaux are a tough nut to crack at home having only lost twice at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in all competitions this season but a patchy track record in Europe is one cause for hope for Gloucester. 

A powerful pack and some game-changing talent amongst the backs, even with Louis Rees-Zammit sidelined, gives Gloucester a platform to work from in a crunch clash.

No margin for error for Sale and Ulster

WhatUlster v Sale Sharks
WhereKingspan Stadium, Belfast
When20:00, Saturday 21st January 2023
How to watchBT Sport 2
OddsUlster 4/9, Sale 15/8

The final game of Saturday’s slate of matches is tantalisingly poised with both Sale and Ulster currently on the outside looking in at the Pool B qualification places. 

After back-to-back losses to French giants Toulouse, the Sharks sit on five points, two points ahead of a winless Ulster side left heartbroken by a last-gasp loss in La Rochelle a week ago. 

That was Ulster’s sixth defeat in the last seven games and the pressure is mounting on director of rugby Dan McFarland, who watched his team get taken apart in the reverse fixture against Sale 39-0. 

Despite the losses to Toulouse, the Sharks have acquitted themselves well this season, staying on the coattails of Saracens in the Premiership, while they recorded an impressive win at Harlequins in their last away game. 

Director of rugby Alex Sanderson has plenty of good options at his disposal, including England scrum-half Raffi Quirke, who made a timely return from injury last week. 

In contrast, McFarland is without his captain Iain Henderson, one of several key players to miss out for Ulster, leaving them vulnerable to bowing out of the Champions Cup at the first hurdle.

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