Ranking Europe's Top 15 Club Teams After Weekend of April 11-12

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2015

Ranking Europe's Top 15 Club Teams After Weekend of April 11-12

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    Francois Mori/Associated Press

    The temperature is rising in the play-off hunt across Europe as each of the top three domestic leagues nears its conclusion.

    In the Pro 12, there are still a clutch of pivotal clashes between the top four sides that will shape the complexion of the play-off places. One certainty is that champions Leinster are all but out of the picture after defeat to the Dragons.

    In England, Devon’s only top-flight club made it a miserable weekend for the East Midlands.

    Northampton’s lead was cut at the top as they went down against Exeter and Leicester lost their fourth spot to the Chiefs with defeat at Saracens.

    In France, no one but Toulon claimed a win in the top four as Clermont somehow contrived to lose at home to Oyonnax and the Paris clubs both drew, opening the door for Toulouse to edge their way into the play-off conversation.

    Attention shifts once more to Europe this weekend, with many of the teams in this ranking now solely focused on domestic honours.

    Teams still in the top European competition will again receive a better assessment as far as this order is concerned, but that reprieve may well expire for Leinster this week unless they can topple Toulon in Marseille.

15. Leicester

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    The Tigers fell out of the play-off places in the Premiership with defeat at Saracens, dropping below Exeter.

    Richard Cockerill’s men couldn’t find their way over the try line at Allianz Park but will hope to fill their boots when they welcome London Welsh in the next round while Exeter face a far tougher test away to Wasps.

    The Tigers also have to go to the Ricoh before the regular season ends, and a clash on the final day with Northampton does not represent the easiest fixture to round off on if Cockerill’s troops still need something to secure a play-off berth.

14. Ospreys

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    A 33-13 comeback win away to Treviso gave Ospreys some welcome breathing space between themselves and champions Leinster. WalesOnline’s Andy Howell wrote:

    They had trailed 13-11 with 25 minutes remaining of a topsy-turvy encounter in the north-east of Italy but their superiority came through at the end with tries from full-back Dan Evans, flanker Justin Tipuric and scrum-half Rhys Webb putting a top four finish and perhaps a home semi-final in the title play-offs within their grasp.

    That aspiration will take some realising with trips to Glasgow and Connacht still to negotiate, but Steve Tandy’s men will fancy their chances against Cardiff in their final Welsh derby of the season.

    The Blues were battered by Glasgow in their last outing and have little to play for.

13. Stade Francais

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    The French capital’s other play-off chasing club has had less to contend with than their cross-city rivals Racing, who came so close to a last-four place in the Champions Cup while Stade went out of the Challenge Cup at the pool stage.

    But the pair remain locked in battle for a play-off spot in the Top 14. As Racing were squandering a lead at home to Montpellier, Stade salvaged a draw on their travels with a 19-19 result away to La Rochelle.

    It was two points snatched from the jaws of defeat thanks to Jonathan Danty’s 71st-minute try, converted by Jules Plisson to level proceedings and keep Stade third, four points clear of their local adversaries.

12. Exeter

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    The Chiefs have twice collected the scalps of the English champions this season.

    In doing so for the second time last weekend, they marched back into the top four and topped up confidence ahead of a Challenge Cup semi-final with Gloucester.

    If Rob Baxter’s impressive unit is to make it into the Premiership post-season, they will do it the hard way, with their final three games against Wasps and Saracens away before they host up-and-coming Sale.

    It could yet be a season of seasons for the Devonians.

11. Ulster

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    The Red Hand Gang reaffirmed their quest for a play-off spot in the Pro 12 with a 27-20 win away to Connacht.

    Ireland wing Tommy Bowe surpassed the 60-try mark in his Pro 12 career with a brace, the second of which thwarted a Connacht comeback after Ulster had raced into a 17-0 lead. A spicy end to the campaign still holds many a twist for Neil Doak’s men.

    They can kill off Leinster’s play-off hopes in the next round and, should they manage that, will boost hopes of a home semi-final if they can beat top-four rivals Munster, who currently head the men from the north on points difference.

    Even then they could surrender that advantage with an away trip on the final day to league leaders Glasgow.

    If nothing else, Rory Best and Co. will be battle-ready come play-off time.

10. Munster

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    Munster mauled Edinburgh in the Scottish capital with a 34-3 demolition job.

    It took 32 minutes to find the try line for the Limerick men, but they exploded in the middle third of the match to round off a five-try win with 15 minutes left.

    Munster sit second now and will have their penultimate fixture, against Ulster, earmarked as the game that will determine whether they can secure home advantage in the knockout stages.

    With Treviso among their final three opponents, the red men must be slight favourites to finish with the better points differential if they can avoid defeat to Ulster.

9. Glasgow

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    Glasgow battered Cardiff 36-17 to maintain their grip on first place in the Pro 12.

    Peter Horne was in inspired form as the Scottish international claimed a hat-trick and set the Warriors on course for a healthy bonus point win. His display almost stole the show on an evening staged as a farewell to two Glasgow stalwarts, as Stuart McAllister wrote in the Herald:

    Though the occasion was all about Al Kellock and Dougie Hall, nine years each at the club and more than 300 games between them, it was almost stolen by Peter Horne, the centre, who has had his fair share of troubles in recent months but laid on a demonstration of goal kicking and try poaching with a 12-minute hat-trick that is bound to stand him in good stead when the Scotland coaches sit down next month to pick the training squad ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

    Glasgow have two away trips to test their title credentials with visits to Connacht and Ospreys, who they may well meet again in the play-offs, before rounding off with Ulster at home, another side they could well meet to decide the title.

8. Toulouse

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    After a hellish start to the campaign, Toulouse have ground their way to the cusp of the top four in the Top 14.

    A season that looked in ruins after they practically pushed themselves out of Europe on the final day of pool play now has a heartbeat with the potential for a play-off place and domestic honours.

    While Clermont lost and the two Parisian sides above Toulouse were held to draws, Guy Noves oversaw a late Louis Picamoles try that sealed a 20-17 home win over Bayonne.

    Toulouse have beaten Toulon in Marseilles in recent weeks and will harbour few fears about a trip to Stade Francais in two weeks’ time.

    They are level with Racing Metro on 57 points and know a win would at least lift them above Stade.

7. Racing Metro

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    Laurent Labit’s men could not quite shake off the hangover of last-minute defeat to Saracens in Europe as they were held 24-24 at home by Montpellier.

    They again let a commanding position slip, having stretched out to a 24-10 lead after Michael Claassens' try on 51 minutes.

    The fight for the play-offs is set for a rousing finale to the Top 14 season as a result of the weekend’s action with Racing now level with Toulouse places and everyone from second to sixth coming closer together.

6. Bath

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    Sam Burgess made his first start as a back rower for Bath, but George Ford stole the show. His performance was described in the Guardian as a "fly-half masterclass" in a 29-19 win that keeps Mike Ford’s side in third.

    The England No. 10 kicked a penalty and three conversions, but his silky handling was also evident in Anthony Watson’s try, described in the Guardian as a "subtle delayed pass to allow the full-back Watson to scythe through under the posts."

    Burgess racked up some impressive stats with 45m covered with ball in hand, three turnovers forced and nine tackles made in the No. 6 shirt.

    The Telegraph’s John Wardle labelled the former rugby league man’s 60-minute display "solid, unspectacular" but also quoted Mike Ford who significantly outlined that he sees Burgess' future as a back rower rather than the centre he has been since joining the club:

    Sam has a lot to learn, but he is only going to get better, so we just have to keep playing him. It’s hard for him because he has only been in the game for six months, but I think you’ve seen the future tonight.

5. Leinster

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    The Pro 12 has almost turned into a write-off for Leinster after a 25-22 defeat away to the Dragons. The Dubliners stay fifth but are eight points behind fourth-placed Ospreys.

    Several front-line players were kept out of the action with this week’s trip to Marseilles for the Champions Cup semi-final against Toulon.

    But the squad is deep enough to fight on two fronts, and Leinster have struggled to find consistency in the Pro 12 all season.

    The Irish Independent’s Matt Lloyd summed up the prospect of the side’s season ending in the French port city this weekend:

    Defeat leaves them locked in fifth place and eight points adrift of reaching the play-offs with just three games remaining. And with Toulon in Marseille looming large on the horizon, Leinster’s season is facing a potential doomsday scenario of being over by mid-April.

4. Northampton

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    Misery was piled upon misery for the Saints as Exeter did the league double over Jim Mallinder’s side.

    After a humbling exit from Europe, they have now seen their lead in the Premiership cut to six points, and their coach saw some worrying signs in his forward pack, per BBC Sport:

    They put our set-piece - particularly our scrum - under some pressure. We'd talked about the quality of Exeter's scrum before the game. You can't under-estimate that because they are a big heavy pack.

    Top spot in the Premiership is still likely to be theirs come the end of the regular season, which could mean a chance to beat Exeter at the third time of asking this campaign.

3. Clermont Auvergne

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    Being a fan of Clermont Auvergne must be like having a tooth pulled one week and winning the lottery the next.

    After a dazzling display to rip Northampton apart in Europe in front of their fanatical home crowd, they were at home against Oyonnax and promptly lost 11-10.

    An entirely changed starting team still boasted internationals such as Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Malzieu and Thomas Domingo, who should have been good enough to get the job done over a team nine points worse off than them in the table.

    It clearly signals the mindset of the men from the Massif Central, however.

    With their semi-final in Europe to come next weekend, they have wrapped their stars in cotton wool. They must pray the gamble was worth it when they face Saracens next week.

2. Saracens

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    Sarries comfortably beat Leicester at home 22-6 to open a healthy gap over the Tigers.

    Billy Vunipola, Marcelo Bosch and Chris Wyles scored the game’s tries that boost the Fez Heads' chances of a home semi-final and send them up to second after the weekend's action in this ranking.

    The big games come thick and fast now for Mark McCall’s men as they set sail for St Etienne next weekend and a Champions Cup semi-final clash with Clermont.

    After beating the French side comprehensively at Twickenham at the same stage of the Heineken Cup last season, Saracens pipped them at home in pool play in the new Champions Cup earlier this term but lost 18-6 at Stade Marcel Michelin.

    This weekend’s clash will test the Clermont support’s ability to replicate the atmosphere of their imposing home, while Saracens will be confident of shackling the free-running exploits that did so handsomely for Northampton.

1. Toulon

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    The Top 14 and European champions maintained top spot in their domestic league and first billing in these rankings with a 35-14 win away to Grenoble.

    Two tries from Matt Giteau and Bryan Habana plus points from the famed boots of Leigh Halfpenny, Frederic Michalak and Delon Armitage underlined the firepower Bernard Laporte’s team possesses.

    With no one else in the top four winning, the men in red lengthen their advantage at the head of the pack.

    They face Leinster in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup and are fancied to reach their third consecutive final.

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