Power Ranking Europe's Top 10 Clubs: Toulouse on the Rise
The last Heineken Cup weekend of 2013 was a thriller.
Last-gasp victories for Leicester and Munster in France were the highlights of a round that has teed up the pool stage for a dramatic climax in January.
And in Dublin, we saw Northampton turn the form book on its head with a redeeming win over big guns Leinster.
Here's how the weekend shook up the top 10.
10. (Last Week 9) Castres, Top 14
Castres can still qualify from Pool 1.
They will need to beat Northampton away and Leinster at home to do so, which doesn’t look likely on the evidence of their defeat to the Ospreys.
A tryless encounter in Swansea turned into a duel between kickers Dan Biggar and Rory Kockott, with the Welshman outgunning the South African seven penalties to four for a 21-12 win for the Welsh region.
The contest made it 160 minutes of rugby between these two that failed to produce a single try, coming on the back of a 15-9 win for Castres last week.
9. (10) Northampton, Premiership
Northampton bounced back in style in Dublin.
Their 18-9 win over Leinster was the perfect response after being thwacked by 40 points by the same side a week earlier.
George North and Jamie Elliot’s tries mean the Saints have something to play for in a pool that remains Leinster’s to lose, but the job they did in salvaging their pride is what seemed to please boss Jim Mallinder most.
8. (8) Ulster, PRO12
Ulster can do nothing wrong in Europe at present. There were no slip-ups away to Treviso as they romped home 35-3, although it took until the 77th minute for the four-try bonus point to be secured.
They will hope Montpellier, whose hopes of qualification are over after their second defeat at home, will field a weaker side when they visit Ravenhill in January, before the crunch game at Leicester that will determine this pool’s outcome.
7. (7) Leicester, Premiership
Leicester also left it until the last 30 seconds to steal a 15-14 victory at Montpellier.
After a scoreless first half, the Tigers struck first through Tom Youngs, but went behind to Enzo Selponi’s converted score just two minutes later.
And it looked like defeat was sealed with Lucas Dupont’s 62nd minute score that put the hosts up 14-5.
But Ryan Lamb’s penalty kept the Tigers in touch, and when Niki Goneva was put away by Marcos Ayerza in the 79th minute, he had the presence of mind to get round under the posts for Lamb’s winning conversion to be a simple one.
Leicester now have their fate in their own hands, with Ulster travelling to Welford Road in the final round in what could be a tasty pool decider.
6. (4) Saracens, Premiership
Sarries inflicted another beating on Zebre with no fewer than eight different try scorers in a 64-3 win.
Sarries boss Mark McCall was quick to heap praise on young hooker Jamie George after the game, tipping him for an England Saxons call-up.
Despite a huge margin of victory, however, the Fez heads drop down when you compare the weight of their win against those achieved elsewhere in Europe this weekend.
5. (6) Munster, PRO12
Munster pulled off another miracle in the Heineken Cup with their last-gasp winner in Perpignan.
The two-time winners looked set for defeat in an ill-tempered match until JJ Hanrahan snuck up the right touchline with the clock spent to snatch a 18-17 win.
Gloucester’s defeat to Edinburgh puts Munster in firm command of Pool 6, but they still have to travel to Kingsholm and face Edinburgh at home to make sure of qualification.
4. (5) Toulon, Top 14
Bernard Laporte’s men were made to work hard for their 32-20 win over Exeter.
The former France coach left Jonny Wilkinson on the bench after his kicking horror show at Sandy Park, but the World Cup winner came on a bagged 70th minute try to kill off Exeter’s hope of qualification.
Toulon now lead Cardiff by two points in Pool 2 and host the Welshmen next in the decider.
3. (2) Leinster, PRO12
The Dubliners proved a week can be an awful long time in rugby.
Following their outstanding performance in Northampton, they were fully expected to complete the double over the English side.
But they could find none of the fluidity or fireworks they had shown at Franklin’s Gardens.
Leinster still have to travel to Castres in their final pool match and will need to regain their best form to ensure they don’t receive another bloody nose.
2. (3) Toulouse, Top 14
Toulouse shook off the shock of a home defeat to Connacht by hammering the Irish minnows in Galway, 37-9.
Maxime Medard scored two of their five tries, and they stay top of Pool 3 by virtue of their head-to-head record against Saracens.
This section is coming to the boil nicely, with a winner-takes-all showdown against Sarries at Stade Ernest Wallon on January 11 looking like a mouth-watering prospect.
1. (1) Clermont Auvergne, Top 14
Clermont underlined their strength with a thumping win away to the Scarlets.
Their 31-13 win was the classic game of two halves. They trailed 13-10 at half time despite an explosive start that saw Napolioni Nalaga score in the first minute.
But 21 unanswered second-half points secured the four-try bonus point and kept them moving inexorably towards the knockout stages.