Both the Toyota Cheetahs’ biggest rivals in their conference in the Guinness PRO 14 showed good form in their Champions Cup fixtures at the weekend and their log positions in that competition underline what a formidable challenge they are for the South African team.
Leinster, currently flying in the PRO 14, are on top in their conference in the Champions Cup with four wins in four starts, and it is a similar story with Ulster, who hold a more slender one point lead in theirs but were impressive in hammering Harlequins 34-10 at The Stoop at the weekend. Leinster, who are unbeaten in both competitions, underlined their status as strong challengers for European domination with a 50-21 annihilation of Northampton.
Leinster are 10 points clear of the second placed team in their group and their win over Northampton, currently placed second, made them the first qualifiers for the Champions Cup quarterfinals.
With just two exceptions, it was generally a good weekend for the PRO 14 teams competing in the Cup. Connacht, 24-12 victors over the Isuzu Southern Kings in their last PRO 14 game, scored a dramatic last gasp 24-21 win over Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester team in Galway, with Robin Copeland scoring the winner.
Connacht have shown improved form this season and their win, the second of their European campaign, confirms their growing stature, but it was one of the Italian participants in the PRO 14, Benetton, who had the most reason to celebrate in the fourth round of the Champions Cup. When Marco Lazarroni crossed for their match winning try off the last move against Lyon in Treviso it clinched the hosts their first win.
There was a major setback though for the other team challenging the Cheetahs for a place in the PRO 14 play-offs, Glasgow Warriors. Their 12-7 reverse at home to La Rochelle leaves them second in Pool 2, a full 10 log points behind first placed Exeter and involved in a bun fight to qualify for the next round.
Munster, coached by former Springbok assistant Johan van Graan, lost 15-6 to Saracens at the Allianz Stadium in a game that was overshadowed by a mass brawl allegedly sparked by a comment directed at England hooker Jamie George by the Munster team doctor. Although they lost, Munster remain second in Pool 4, six behind Racing 92 and one point ahead of Saracens.
The PRO 14 takes centre stage again this coming weekend, with the Leinster/Ulster clash on Friday night the headline act. Leinster are out of range in the conference race so the Cheetahs will be hoping that the favourites continue on their winning ways and push second placed Ulster back towards them. There are currently four points separating Ulster from the third placed Cheetahs, who are in turn just a few points ahead of the fourth placed Warriors. The Warriors play their home derby against Edinburgh on Saturday.
The two South African teams, the Cheetahs and the Kings, only play again in the first week of January so will be working from a position where they have games in hand when they resume. The Cheetahs in particular will be watching the next few rounds with interest as the results will have a big impact on what they will need to do once January arrives.