Ranking Europe's Top 15 Club Teams After Weekend of December 18-20

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2015

Ranking Europe's Top 15 Club Teams After Weekend of December 18-20

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    Lots of movement beneath an unchanged top three this week.

    Ulster and Wasps both recorded significant wins in the context of their pools, while Harlequins entered the fray for a dominant campaign in the Challenge Cup backed up by a steady rise in the Premiership table.

    Despite the ominous way Toulon recovered to beat Leinster after a first half best forgotten, it would seem, for now, that the force is with Saracens as the best team on the block.

    Mark McCall's men are playing with an attacking verve to go with their trademark defensive obduracy.

    That latter characteristic is certainly lacking at Bath at the moment, who, after stealing the win over Wasps last weekend, came horribly unstuck in the set piece and pretty much all other areas at home to the same opposition.

    The West Country side slide from view as far as this ranking is concerned. With a long road back to the play-off spots in the Premiership and a daunting pair of fixtures still to come in Europe against Toulon, Mike Ford's men are in deep water.

    Here are this week's swimmers and sinkers.

15. Northampton Saints (Last Week, 11)

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    Northampton Saints couldn't find their spark against Racing 92 in a drab 9-9 draw that keeps Jim Mallinder's men second in Pool 3 of the Champions Cup for now.

    The Saints have some work to do in the Premiership to get back into the playoff places and can start with their trip to lowly London Irish on Boxing Day.

    Whether they will do that with Alex King still as their backs coach is up for debate. He has reportedly had a meeting with Eddie Jones over a role with England, but Mallinder was none too flattering about the way his man has been approached, per the Daily Mail's Nik Simon:

    We’re in the dark. As a club we’ve had no formal approach and it’s disappointing. 

    We don’t want to talk about compensation because we don’t know if Alex will be their new backs coach or not. It’s very early to discuss that. What you don’t want is to hear by reading in the press that somebody is talking to one of your coaches.

14. Bordeaux-Begles (New Entry)

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    Bordeaux-Begles make their entry into the rankings after a thrilling win over Ospreys, 33-27, but they remain rooted to the foot of their Champions Cup group, four points adrift of third-placed Exeter Chiefs.

    They do have a game in hand, and they are not badly placed in the Top 14, sitting sixth with six wins from their first 10 games and just two points from a top-four position.

13. Harlequins (New Entry)

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    Harlequins are flying high in Challenge Cup Pool 3 after another hefty victory over Calvisano, 59-7, and are also placed fourth in the Premiership ahead of the Christmas schedule.

    After encountering resistance in the first 40 minutes to lead by just 14–7 at the break, Conor O'Shea's side cut loose to add seven more scores in the second period to edge to the brink of quarter-final qualification.

    With Gloucester and Worcester Warriors up next in domestic fare, Quins are well placed to maintain their top-four status in the Premiership, before an acid test arrives in the form of a trip to Saracens on January 9.

12. Exeter (4)

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    Down to earth with a resounding thud, Exeter were well beaten at Clermont Auvergne just a week after humbling the giants at Sandy Park.

    A 42-10 shellacking moved the French side above Rob Baxter's men in Pool 2 of the Champions Cup and was summed up succinctly by the Guardian's Rob Cole: "Battered at the breakdown, challenged at the lineout and generally under pressure all over the pitch, they ended up chasing shadows as Clermont, showing eight changes from the previous weekend, rediscovered their swagger."

    Fixtures against Sale Sharks, Northampton and Gloucester cover their next three rounds of Premiership action in which their coach will want to see a return to form to maintain their second place in the league table.

11. Ospreys (10)

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    Ospreys slip in the rankings after an away defeat to Bordeaux-Begles in the Champions Cup that was branded a classic by WalesOnline's Andy Howell.

    It was far from a disastrous outcome for Steve Tandy's men, with two bonus points claimed for the narrow defeat and their four tries scored in the 33-27 reverse.

    They hang on to top spot in Pool 2 by two points, but Clermont are poised to pounce with a game in hand over the Welsh side.

10. Glasgow Warriors (13)

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    Glasgow Warriors hung on for a 9-6 win in awful conditions over the Scarlets.

    Their task was made all the harder after racing into a 9-0 lead with the loss of Sean Lamont and Simone Favaro to the sin bin, but they clung to the advantage and now have Northampton in their sights in Pool 3 of the Champions Cup.

    Gregor Townsend's men have a game in hand over the second-placed Saints after the cancellation of their earlier clash with Racing 92, so second spot and a chance at the quarter-finals remains very much in their thinking.

    Their Pro12 form needs attention in the short term, however, with back-to-back derby fixtures against Edinburgh over the Christmas and New Year period coming up.

9. Toulouse (8)

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    Double defeat for Toulouse, who went down for the second time in a week to Ulster and now look destined to miss the knockout stages of the Champions Cup. On Sunday, they succumbed to a 25-23 defeat. 

    You get the sense this is a team waiting to transition from one era to the next.

    Louis Picamoles leaves at the end of this season, Thierry Dusautoir is approaching the winding-down stage of a wonderful career, and their new coaching regime needs time to make a fresh imprint on a club that for so long has had Guy Noves entwined in its DNA.

8. Stade Francais (12)

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    Stade Francais completed a high-scoring double over Treviso to stay on the heels of Leicester Tigers in Pool 4 of the Champions Cup, walking away with a 40-14 win on Saturday.

    The game was never out of the grasp of the men in pink, who scored six tries—including a thrilling virtuoso effort from prop Zurab Zhvania.

    The Frenchmen still have to face Munster twice—and beat them twice—if they harbour hope of catching the East Midlanders, against whom they will finish off their pool campaign in late January.

    It's all to play for for the reigning Top 14 champions.

7. Racing 92 (7)

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    Racing's 9-9 draw with Northampton was not a game for the ages, but it keeps the Parisians ticking along nicely with three games left to secure top spot in their pool.

    Dan Carter has slipped into the side well—following up a composed and cultured showing in the previous fixture with three penalties in this encounter—and he presented a cool head under fire from some borderline Saints tackling, per Michael Aylwin in the Guardian.

6. Wasps (9)

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    Wasps took handsome revenge over Bath for their last-minute loss to the Devonians a week earlier with a 36-10 win at the Rec in the Champions Cup.

    Dai Young’s men wrested their fate back into their own hands with a comprehensive performance over the side who got all the way to the Premiership final last season.

5. Ulster (5)

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    As well as Saracens are performing at the moment, Ulster have a chance to chase down the Pool 1 leaders in the Champions Cup after conquering Toulouse in France.

    Les Kiss’ side built on a 10-3 half-time lead with further tries from Andrew Trimble and Luke Marshall to earn a 25-23 win at Stade Ernest Wallon.

    And they have a game in hand over Saracens with two fixtures still to come against whipping boys Oyonnax.

    Closing that 10-point gap to the English Premiership pace-setters is not out of the question.

    Ulster's season suddenly has some newfound impetus.

4. Clermont Auvergne (6)

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    Clermont clawed back some respect and opened up Pool 2 with a 42-10 revenge win over Exeter.

    Five tries for Les Jaunards enabled Franck Azema’s men to close the gap on pool leaders Ospreys, who mustered two losing bonus points in defeat to Bordeaux-Begles.

    This was much more like the powerhouse display we are accustomed to seeing from Clermont when they play at home, but it may take a good few hours on a sports psychologist’s couch to fathom why they can’t get anywhere close to the same level on their travels.

3. Leicester Tigers (3)

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    The Tigers toppled Munster for the second time in a week to establish an eight-point lead at the top of Pool 4 in the Champions Cup.

    Tries from Ed Slater and Niki Goneva allied to the boot of Freddie Burns were enough to see off the Irishmen 17-6.

    Treviso at home in the next phase of pool play will hand Leicester the chance to stretch their lead if they can win handsomely, and they remain on course for a favourable home quarter-final.

2. Toulon (2)

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    Toulon showed what championship teams are made of in Dublin as they roared back from a 16-5 half-time deficit to overturn Leinster 20-16.

    That completes the double over the Irishmen, and all roads now look to be leading to a Champions Cup Pool 5 decider against Wasps on the final weekend.

1. Saracens (1)

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    Saracens completed a second heavy defeat of Oyonnax to continue their seemingly unstoppable march into the knockout rounds of the Champions Cup, winning 55-13 on Saturday.

    A hat-trick for Chris Ashton will have sent outgoing defence coach Paul Gustard to England duty with a glowing reference to hand to Eddie Jones, as the latter prepares to name his first elite squad in January.

    For the Fez-Boys, this was their 10th win in as many games in all competitions this season, and they are showing every sign of being capable of loosening Toulon’s three-year grip on the European crown.

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