Peter Jackson: Permutations promise dramatic final Champions Cup weekend

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline.

Peter Jackson: Permutations promise dramatic final Champions Cup weekend

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline.

Leinster will secure a fourth consecutive home quarter-final and top seeding with a win over Treviso in Italy on Saturday.

Down in Devon later that same afternoon, only Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle can prevent Exeter Chiefs booking their first home quarter.

Neither of the unbeaten French contenders can be sure of doing likewise.

Racing put their record on the line at Saracens in a tie the holders must win to scramble into the last eight as one of the three best runners-up.

Toulouse defend theirs against Gloucester aware that defeat would put David Humphreys’ outsiders into the last eight. None of the five already through can be sure of home advantage.

Clermont must complete the double over Harlequins in London but not even a five-pointer for the Michelin Men can guarantee the top-four seeding.

Ulster need the maximum reward against Bath at Ravenhill with a simultaneous Saturday afternoon kick-off.

Bath’s fielding of a virtual second XV against Quins last week indicated that they have already written the tournament off as a bad job.

Assuming they see off the flapping Ospreys, Munster’s forlorn hope of a reprieve would then hinge on a presumably fully-loaded Saracens losing as well as Glasgow at Sale, Gloucester at Toulouse and Northampton at Lyon.

How they stand: 1 Leinster 24 pts (+105) To play: Treviso (a); 2 Racing 23 pts (+ 71) To play: Saracens (a); 3 Exeter 22 pts (+ 62) To play: La Rochelle (h); 4 Toulouse 22 pts (+56) To play: Gloucester (h); 5 Clermont 20 pts (+86) To play: Harlequins (a); 6 Ulster 17 pts (+15) To play: Bath (h); 7 Saracens 14 pts (+30) To play: Racing (h); 8 Gloucester 14 pts (+21) To play: Toulouse (a); 9 Northampton14 pts (-29) To play: Lyon (a); 10 Glasgow 12 pts (-12) To play: Sale (a); 11 Munster 11 pts (0) To play: Ospreys (h).

Have Sarries not paid big enough penalty?

Ever since their exposure for fiddling the salary cap, Saracens have been abused wherever they have gone.

For all the loathing spewed at the English champions on social and anti-social media alike, one of America’s greatest boxers would have loved them to bits if only he had seen what they had to endure in Swansea at the weekend.

Willie Pep, considered by those long gone experts of prize-fighting to have been the supreme defensive technician at any weight at any time, would have empathised with the wounded holders.

A veteran of 240 fights from the start of the forties to the late sixties and world featherweight champion for almost ten years, Willie also knew a thing or two about the penalties for dodgy housekeeping.

By the sound of it, he paid a heavier domestic price than the one Saracens are currently paying. "My first five wives were good housekeepers,’’ Pep once said.

“Each of them kept the house when she left.”

The palatial one Saracens built is in the process of being down-sized, with several players due to be off-loaded to eliminate the risk of further punishment on top of the 35-point deduction and €6.5m fine.

Trying to run business as normal in such abnormal circumstances is difficult enough without the foundations rocking beneath their feet.

Tight corners don’t come much tighter than the one Sarries found themselves in Swansea where even the skies wept for them. Pep, so adept in the duck-and-dive department that he once famously won a round without throwing a single punch, would have felt for them even if the turmoil was entirely of their own making.

For a start, they came without 12 internationals including virtually their entire England contingent, resting for the more pressing matter of Premiership survival.

Four minutes into the match, they lost a 13th, Welsh tighthead Rhys Carre to a red card. Then they lost a 14th, flanker Callum Clarke to a yellow.

Even Ospreys, trying desperately to dredge something out of the flotsam and jetsam of their shipwreck of a season, couldn’t help but score two tries against what remained of the Saracens’ Reserves.

The prospect of a third straight setback on the road to follow those in Paris and Limerick left them in grave danger of being knocked clean out of Europe inside the distance. The count had begun and Mark McCall would have heard it, not that the Ulsterman let it show.

The director of rugby knew that even if his team found an escape, the human cost would be counted in jobs lost.

He had spelt it out pre-match, that those most vulnerable would be ‘coming to the end of their careers.’

Richard Wigglesworth, at 36 probably the most vulnerable, pushed the uncertainty aside to dig Sarries out of their hole, the perfection of his box-kick matched by Alex Lewington’s leap providing the try that keeps the holders holding on for Sunday’s decider against Racing.

Champions Cup all the poorer for Munster’s absence

The Red Army will turn out in force as per usual against Ospreys at Thomond Park on Sunday, resigned to folding their banners away for the rest of the season.

The Champions Cup will be all the poorer for their absence, and while the writing had been on the wall since their team’s disappointing home draw against Racing in November, nobody needs to tell any Munster player that sport can be a cruel business.

Ahead going into the final ten minutes, they were undone by a mesmeric piece of finishing from Teddy Thomas.

The two converted tries that followed meant Munster had shipped more points to anyone anywhere in France since the imperious Toulouse of Emile NTamack and Tomas Castaignede hit them for 60 almost a quarter of a century ago.

La Rochelle’s man mountain

The title of Europe’s heaviest heavyweight can now be safely said to be back on French soil, transferred from a relatively slimline English-based Australian to a French-domiciled New Zealander.

Will Skelton’s shedding of three stone leaves Uini Atonio of La Rochelle ruling a roost of reinforced concrete at almost 24 stone.

Team of the weekend

15 Will Addison (Ulster)

14 Teddy Thomas (Racing)

13 Virimi Vakatawa (Racing)

12 George Moala (Clermont)

11 Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester)

10 Adam Hastings (Glasgow)

9 Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens)

1 Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)

2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter)

3 Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse)

4 Will Skelton (Saracens)

5 Franco Mostert (Gloucester)

6 Peter O’Mahony (Munster)

7 Callum Clarke (Saracens)

8 Max Deegan (Leinster)

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