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The start of the French Champions Cup crisis?

SPOTLIGHT: Two French clubs top the statistics at the halfway point of the pool phase of the Champions Cup.

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However, the remaining two weekends leading into the round of 16 may answer the vexing question of what has become of that country’s anticipated domination of Europe.

Toulouse are the most prolific winners of the elite competition, and in the eyes of many, they are the favourites to dethrone their countrymen LaRochelle, who have usurped them in the past two seasons, by becoming champions for the sixth time.

That is based on the ease with which they’ve won their games so far. They inflicted the biggest defeat on Cardiff that the Welsh team has suffered in nearly two decades and then went to the Stoop in London where they sounded an ominous warning with a 47-19 win over Harlequins.

The big win over Cardiff was maybe expected, the margin of victory away to Harlequins not so much.

In the process Toulouse have scored the most tries so far in the competition, 14, as well as the most points (99). Some of their other game statistics make a chilling reading to the other teams in the competition. They top the lineout success at 100 percent, metres made at 1235, clean breaks at 41. They are third in the ball-carrying stakes with 259 carries.

But then, as we saw at the recent World Cup in France, not everything is always equal when a competition is divided into pools or groups that may not all be equal in strength and competitiveness.

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And that can certainly be suggested of the other French club that boasts a 100 percent record and tops their group – Bordeaux Begles are assumed to be on the rise after filling their boots against Connacht and Bristol Bears.

South Africans might get a better idea of what kind of achievement that is when the Bulls, who thrashed Connacht at Loftus Versfeld earlier in the United Rugby Championship (URC) season, clash with Bristol on Saturday afternoon. And then the Bulls get their chance to test Bordeaux when they host the French team the following weekend at Loftus, a venue where the Bulls have not lost in the Champions Cup.

But perhaps the more telling point about Bordeaux and their unexpected statement is what they have been doing in their own league, the Top 14.

They are second in that league and are on a seven-match winning streak in all competitions going into Sunday’s game against Saracens, a clash which evokes that old sports writing headline cliche of “moment of truth”.

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If they can do to Saracens what they’ve done to the other teams in the Champions Cup, and if their smattering of top-quality internationals such as Damian Penaud, Louis Beille-Barry and Matthieu Jalibert continue to run riot against Owen Farrell’s men, then they have arrived and can be considered serious contenders. They have the second-highest number of tries and points behind Toulouse.

But what of the other French teams?

A look at the records turned in so far by the three leagues represented in the Champions Cup makes sobering reading for France. The French teams have played 16 games across the competition and won just five.

The URC teams, after a tough start in week one, recovered slightly, as the Glasgow Warriors coach Franco Smith predicted they would, in the second round. The cross-hemisphere competition teams have six wins in 16 starts with one draw.

That draw was Munster’s home game against Bayonne, a result that has left the URC champions a bit behind the eight-ball and desperately needing to win Saturday’s away game against Toulon. It is one of many clashes this weekend that can compete for the title of plum fixture. Munster followed up the draw by losing to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park so they face an uphill battle to get into the round of 16.

The Chiefs are one of four English Premiership teams that is unbeaten in the competition after two rounds, which some see as an indication that the loss of some clubs because of financial difficulties has condensed the strength of English club rugby. That will be put to the test this weekend, not least by the two South African teams, with the Stormers hosting the Sale Sharks just after the Bulls have visited Bristol, but also by Bayonne’s visit to unbeaten Northampton Saints.

URC challengers Glasgow Warriors will be out to make a point away against the Chiefs.

Bordeaux and Lyon occupy the top two spots in Pool One and Toulouse head Pool Two, with the highly regarded French teams that have become a talking point through non-performance being LaRochelle and Siya Kolisi’s new club Racing 92, plus to an extent Stade Francais, who occupy the foot of the log in the highly competitive Pool Four that features Leinster, Leicester Tigers, the Sale Sharks, the Stormers and the reigning champions.

Stade Francais host the Stormers in their last game but by then they could be out of it as they face a tough task away in Dublin against Leinster on Saturday night.

The French teams tend to change focus when they are no longer in contention for a trophy, mostly because the promotion/relegation situation in France is so brutal, which could be part of the answer as to why the French have not dominated.

Leinster, narrowly beaten in the past two finals, are the other unbeaten side in the competition and have made a strong start to their latest challenge for what will be their fifth European title that began with their away win over their nemesis of the last two seasons, LaRochelle.

So which is the plum game of the weekend? There are plenty of really big match-ups if you look at team pedigree, and in that regard, Racing’s visit to Bath to play a team that is soaring under the coaching of former Springbok assistant Johann van Graan on Sunday looks like one that shouldn’t be missed.

But given where defeat will leave them, LaRochelle’s home game against the Tigers has even more significance for the competition, the Stormers can’t afford to lose in Cape Town, Munster go to France on a knock-out footing, and Ulster can show that their recent one point win over Leinster was no fluke by subjecting Toulouse to a proper test at the Kingspan Stadium.

The four top teams in each pool go through to the Champions Cup round of 16 while the fifth-placed team drops to the round of 16 phase of the EPCR Challenge Cup, so there should be interest in developments at the top from the lower tier competition too.

Certainly, if LaRochelle find themselves in the Challenge Cup they will fancy their chances of winning it, and Munster too if they don’t make it.

Not that anything is cut and dried as yet, and the competition is only halfway through the pool phase. By Sunday night it will all be a lot clearer though.

Source: URC 

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