Ranking Europe's Top 10 Clubs: French Big Guns Suffer
International call-ups dented the ranks of the big guns in France, while the English and Welsh clubs at least had a break from league fixtures with the LV= Cup back in action last weekend.
This time of the season will provide a stern test of the depth of many a club squad as they battle to improve their positions while their best players are on international duty.
Here is how they stand as we enter the Six Nations.
10. (Last Week 8) Leicester, Premiership
The Tigers' chances in the LV= Cup took a blow in bizarre circumstances on Saturday after their match with Harlequins was abandoned when the foul weather brought down some scaffolding at the Stoop.
There were nine minutes left in the contest but the result will stand, with Quins ahead 20-6 when the game was called off. They will need to re-focus without the Youngs brothers, Dan Cole and Ed Slater this weekend when they host Bath in the LV= Cup, however, qualification for the semi-finals is now out of their hands.
9. (9) Northampton, Premiership
Jim Mallinder’s side skewered the Dragons at Rodney Parade to enter to the semi-finals of the LV= Cup.
Their five-try display sets next weekend up nicely when they host Saracens at Franklin’s Gardens. A win will ensure home advantage in the last four.
Five tries when you’re missing the likes of George North, Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Luther Burrell is an impressive haul and a sign the Saints fancy this trophy this season.
8. (New Entry) Stade Francais, Top 14
Stade moved to the top of the league in France while the other main contenders suffered defeats.
They hammered Castres 32-6, cutting loose after leading just 12-6 at the break.
Stade have been steadily climbing the table since before Christmas and are now right in the mix for a semi-final place.
7. (7) Saracens, Premiership
Saracens’ second string steamrollered Newcastle 41-8 to progress to the LV= Cup semi-final.
With their international contingent limbering up for the Six Nations, it was left to the lesser lights of the squad to keep the home fires burning, and they did so handsomely with tries from Jackson Wray, Ben Ransom and Tom Jubb.
6. (5) Leinster, PRO12
Matt O’Connor’s side provides a whopping 18 players to the Irish squad for the Six Nations, so the Australian will be watching from behind the sofa as they go into battle.
The three-time European champions have a testing visit to Toulon in April when the Heineken Cup resumes but before that they play one Italian and two Welsh sides in February in the PRO12.
With that many players missing, the fixture list could have been a lot worse.
5. (2) Toulon, Top 14
Bernard Laporte’s men had less to grumble about than Clermont and Toulouse, with just three players absent on national service, so their 23-10 loss to Brive is less excusable.
A poor performance left them 20-3 down at half time with only Rudi Wolf’s late try making a little amends.
4. (4) Munster, PRO12
Munster provide a curiously low number of players to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the Six Nations.
Just five players from the province have made the list for the first two fixtures, with Simon Zebo left out while he continues his return from injury and Keith Earls injured.
They sit three points clear of Leinster in the PRO12, with a meeting at home to the Dubliners on the horizon at the end of March.
3. (3) Ulster, PRO12
Ulster aren’t back in action until February 7 when they host the Ospreys.
A win would see them leapfrog the Welsh region into third place but, for now, the fans of the red hand gang can bask in the warmth of a glowing half-term report, having seen their side win all their Heineken Cup games and set up a home quarter-final with Saracens.
With eight players in the Irish squad for the Six Nations, they will be hoping all return fighting fit.
2. (6) Toulouse, Top 14
With six players on international duty and captain Thierry Dusautoir on the long-term injured list, Toulouse fell heavily to Racing Metro.
This clash highlighted the benefits of French teams stuffing their sides with Irish and Welsh internationals.
They were under no obligation to release their clutch of Celts for Six Nations duty until after this round of Top 14 action, and they reaped the rewards as both Jonny Sexton and Mike Phillips crossed in a 25-5 drubbing.
Guy Noves’ men are yet to win on the road in the league this season.
1. (1) Clermont Auvergne, Top 14
Clermont were missing six first choice players who were away with the national squad, and they paid the price with an 18-9 defeat away to Bayonne.
Ironically, they still had experienced French international Morgan Parra to call upon, but the scrum-half missed three second half penalties in an uncharacteristic showing.