Power Ranking Europe's Top 10 Clubs: Ulster Lead the Way

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2014

Power Ranking Europe's Top 10 Clubs: Ulster Lead the Way

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    The quarter-finals for the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup are now confirmed, and they make miserable reading for British club rugby.

    In the main competition, only Saracens and Leicester qualified as the two bottom seeds, while Gloucester and Harlequins made it into the Amlin last eight.

    Other than that, it’s all about Ireland and France in the Heineken Cup.

    The irony is that the current politicking over the future of European rugby is threatening to leave the English and Welsh sides out in the cold.

    The message to anyone who loves seeing Europe’s best go head-to-head is to enjoy the mouthwatering fixtures coming our way in April’s last eight, because they could be the last we see for a while.

    The beauty of this competition format was that every game had something on it for at least one side.

    Whether it was needing a bonus-point win to ensure home advantage in the knockout stages or scrapping to seal the consolation of an Amlin last-eight berth, there was no such thing as a dead rubber. Here is how they shake down.

10. Harlequins (New)

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    Harlequins woke up a little too late in their Heineken Cup pool to save themselves from a home defeat on opening day to the Scarlets.

    They gained revenge on the Welshmen on the final day to book an Amlin quarter-final against old enemy Stade Francais. 

    The clash invokes memories of their famous win over the Parisians at Stade de France in 2008.

9. Northampton, Premiership (9)

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    The Northampton Saints couldn’t save themselves with an unspectacular win over Castres at home.

    Jim Mallinder’s men must slope off into the Amlin Challenge Cup for a piece of European silverware.

    They stand a good chance of progressing to the last four of the Challenge Cup, having been drawn against Sale away from home.

8. Leicester, Premiership (7)

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    The Leicester Tigers lacked the spark to beat Ulster in a performance that has summed up much of their season so far.

    Richard Cockerill’s side look a little neutered without the game-breaking abilities of Manu Tuilagi in their midfield, and a trip to one of the French powerhouses is going to provide a mountainous challenge in the last eight.

    Clermont Auvergne lie in wait.

7. Saracens, Premiership (6)

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    Two defeats to Toulouse condemned the Saracens to an away quarter-final at Ravenhill.

    They did what they had to do against Connacht with a 64-6 win to ensure themselves one of the best runner-up slots.

    If they’re honest, they would rather travel to Ulster than one of the French heavyweights in the last eight, but having seen what Ulster did to Leicester’s scrum, they will need to step their forward effort up a couple of levels to keep themselves in the contest.

6. Toulouse, Top 14 (1)

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    After outmuscling Saracens in a powerful display last week, you might have expected Toulouse to cut loose a little against Zebre.

    Instead, they produced a workmanlike 16-6 win, which was enough to ensure the top spot in the pool but not to secure a home quarter-final.

    It’s been a curate’s egg of a pool section for the men from the Pink City.

    They grunted and groaned their way through Saracens twice without much panache and contrived to lose on home turf to Connacht, but somehow they never looked likely to do anything other than win this group without getting out of second gear.

    Perhaps knockout rugby will bring out their best.

    They will need their A-game in Limerick, as their task has been made even harder by the injury that has ruled skipper Thierry Dusautoir out for four months.

5. Leinster, PRO12 (4)

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    The return of Cian Healy has added an extra bite to Leinster's scrum, and his strike running in the loose will be even more important in Sean O’Brien’s absence.

    There is no question about their ability to cut teams apart with ball in hand, but with a trip to Toulon in April, their forwards will need to stand up and be counted if Leinster are to progress.

4. Munster, PRO12 (4)

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    Despite a first-day defeat against Edinburgh, Munster have been impressive in their pool and took gruesome revenge for that reverse on Sunday.

    A bonus-point 38-6 win snared them a home quarter-final against Toulouse, who will not fancy a visit to a raucous Thomond Park in April.

    The Munster pack looked in destructive mood against the Scots, and the return of Simon Zebo will add the X-factor to their back line.

3. Ulster, PRO12 (8)

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    Ulster have been underrated all the way through their group stage, but they must be taken as serious contenders now.

    They still lack the razor’s edge in attack that it will take to lift the Heineken Cup, but six wins out of six is a record that no one else could equal.

    Leicester could find no way round them on Saturday night at Welford Road, and Ulster's scrum, by the end of the match, was making minced meat of Leicester’s pack.

    A Ravenhill quarter-final against Saracens awaits. And with Ruan Pienaar in inspired form both with his goal kicking and general scrum-half play, he can lead them into the last four. The No. 9 scored all their points in the East Midlands.

2. Toulon, Top 14

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    Toulon sealed themselves a home quarter-final in a soggy 15-8 win away to Glasgow.

    They had Jonny Wilkinson to thank for all their points and are back in the last eight with a great chance at making the last four.

    Their forward pack can set a platform for Wilkinson and Co. to make inroads against any defence they face, and the emergence this season of David Smith as one of Europe’s deadliest finishers has given them an extra sharpness out wide.

    They host Leinster in the quarter-finals in a clash that could go either way.

1. Clermont Auvergne, Top 14 (1)

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    Having already ensured first place in Pool 4, Clermont could get the deck chairs out against Racing Metro, the basket cases of European rugby.

    The only problem was that the weather was more suited to rain macs and wellies in the Massif Central. It didn’t deter Vern Cotter’s men from going hell for leather to gain the bonus point win they needed for a home quarter-final.

    They got their four tries and elevated themselves to second seed in the group to set up a meeting with Leicester.

    With their home winning record of 71 games, nobody wants to play them in the last eight on their own turf.