Power Ranking Europe's Top 10 Clubs: Saints on the Rise
The club power rankings come to you this week in the midst of a Six Nations tournament that has diluted the strength of our top ten sides.
Nevertheless, just because the bodies filling the shirts are less well known, the points they are accruing are every bit as crucial as those piled up at any other time of the season.
A number of international squad players flooded back into their clubs last weekend as the Six Nations took a break, but there were still plenty of minnows looking to take advantage of the under-strength big boys.
Let’s see how they are faring without their leading men.
10. (Last Week, 3) Ulster, PRO12
Ulster retain their place in these rankings by virtue of their outstanding Heineken Cup campaign thus far.
That has earned them a home quarter-final against Saracens in April but before then they have some serious work to do in the PRO12.
They are 12 points behind Munster despite squeaking a 10-7 win over the Ospreys two weekends ago before their match with the Scarlets was postponed due to a waterlogged Ravenhill surface.
While the Ulster contingent in the Irish national side flourish, their provincial team-mates seem to be struggling.
9. (10) Leicester, Premiership
We last left the Tigers languishing in tenth spot in the power rankings, but they have battled manfully against injury and international call-ups to string back-to-back league wins together, one a thrilling 23-22 victory over strugglers Worcester at Sixways, the other a tight 11-8 win at home to Gloucester.
They still have work to do to get into the Premiership semi-final places, but as their injury problems ease with the imminent return of Manu Tuilagi they can look forward with optimism.
Despite four other English clubs sitting ahead of them on the home front, they are in the last eight of the Heineken Cup and only points difference keeps them behind fourth-place Harlequins.
8. (8) Stade Francais, Top 14
Stade lost 28-12 to Brive but remain third in the table and are one of the favourites to reach the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Their blend of promising French youth and journeymen from the Southern Hemisphere has been functioning well during the mid-part of the season but their problem has been scoring tries.
It returned to haunt them against Brive, with just four Morne Steyn penalties on the board.
7. (2) Toulouse, Top 14
Toulouse have dropped to seventh in the Top 14 after a home defeat to Montpellier on 7 February and a 16-6 win away to Biarritz last weekend.
They never found top gear in their Heineken Cup pool, but they did enough to nullify the threat of Saracens twice, meaning their shock defeat at home to Connacht caused them no more damage than wounded pride.
With so many players involved for France during the Six Nations and missing captain Thierry Dusautoir through injury, it’s no surprise their league form has become patchy.
6. (7) Saracens, Premiership
Saracens lost top spot in the table with a home defeat, 13-22 to London Irish while Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Co. were rolling around in the Murrayfield mud.
That opened the door for Northampton who, suffering a number of international call-ups themselves, went down to Sandy Park and escaped with a 17-16 win against Exeter.
Last weekend, with Alex Goode, Mako Vunipola, Brad Barritt and Chris Ashton all starting, they made amends with a 15-10 away win at Sale.
It wasn’t enough to return them to the top, however, with the Saints seeing off Worcester at home.
Sarries need to cope better than this in the absence of their key men.
5. (9) Northampton, Premiership
Squad depths in the best Premiership sides are being tested during the Six Nations, and Jim Mallinder’s fringe players are coming up with the answers.
While Luther Burrell, Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley continue to impress for the Red Rose Brigade, the players still turning out for the Saints are doing a fine job.
A hard-fought win down at Exeter was followed up by a comfortable victory over Worcester that puts Saints top of the pile.
4. (6) Leinster, PRO12
Leinster scored 31 points apiece in their last two games; recording wins over Zebre and the Dragons to stay on Munster’s heels in the PRO12.
Experienced campaigners Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings and Zane Kirchner are proving valuable assets while their squad is decimated by Irish call-ups, although they were bolstered last weekend by the return of Eoin Reddan, Fergus McFadden, Mike McCarthy and Ian Madigan.
Irish rugby is enjoying a strength in depth like never before at present.
3. (4) Munster, PRO12
The red army laid waste to the Blues in the PRO12 while their international teammates were doing a similar job on the Welsh in Dublin.
Rod Penney’s men then demolished Zebre last weekend to maintain their first place in the PRO12.
Penney is no doubt grateful to Irish boss Joe Schmidt for leaving wing Simon Zebo to sharpen up his instincts in the red of Munster, with the Lions tourist bagging three tries in the last two games.
2. (5) Toulon, Top 14
Toulon beat reigning champions Castres at home last weekend with a 19-13 victory following up by a 33-20 win over Biarritz.
They stay fourth, a point behind Stade Francais, and they will be looking to hit top form for the visit of Leinster in April.
The European champions are having to cope without their coach on the sidelines after Bernard Laporte was handed a 13-week ban for his outburst at a referee, so they’ll be thankful for wise old heads like Matt Giteau and Jonny Wilkinson in the side.
The Australian scored a late try to add to Wilko’s 14 points from the boot to keep Toulon in the playoff places.
1. (1) Clermont Auvergne, Top 14
Clermont suffered a shock defeat to lowly Grenoble, 16-13, but they remain top by a point ahead of Montpellier.
There was further bad news from the defeat to the men from the Alps when it emerged hooker Benjamin Kayser had suffered knee damage that has curtailed his involvement in France’s quest for the Six Nations Grand Slam.
This weekend sees the top two meet at Stade de Marcel Michelin, where Clermont will have to defend their long-standing unbeaten record without Kayser and fellow French international Wesley Fofana, who will be on duty this Friday night in Cardiff against Wales.