Leinster - who are currently flying in the Guinness PRO14 with seven wins in as many games – also top their conference in the Champions Cup with four wins in four starts, and it is a similar story with Ulster, who hold a slender one-point lead in their pool after an impressive 34-10 hammering against Harlequins at The Stoop this past weekend.
Leinster, who remain unbeaten in both competitions, underlined their status as strong challengers for European domination with a 50-21 annihilation of Northampton. They are now 10 points clear of the second placed team in their group, and are the first qualifiers for the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
With just two exceptions, it was generally a good weekend for the Guinness PRO14 teams competing in the Cup. Connacht, who were 24-12 victors over the Isuzu Southern Kings in their last Guinness PRO14 outing, scored a dramatic last gasp 24-21 victory over Johan Ackermann’s, Gloucester, in Galway, with Robin Copeland scoring the winner.
Connacht have shown improved form this season, and their win, which marked the second of their European campaign, confirms their growing stature. It was, however, one of the Italian Guinness PRO14 participants, 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 from the last move against Lyon in Treviso it clinched the hosts’ first win.
There was a major setback though for the other team challenging the Toyota Cheetahs for a place in the Guinness PRO14 playoffs, Glasgow Warriors. Their 12-7 reverse at home to La Rochelle leaves them second in Pool two - a full 10 log points behind first-placed Exeter, which will see them involved in a bun fight to qualify for the next round.
Munster, coached by former Springbok assistant coach 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 four, six points behind Racing 92 and one point ahead of Saracens.
The Guinness PRO14 takes centre stage again this coming weekend, with the Leinster versus Ulster clash on Friday night the headline act. Leinster are out of range in the conference race so the Toyota Cheetahs will be hoping that the favourites continue their winning ways and push Ulster back towards them. There are currently four points separating Ulster from the third-placed Toyota Cheetahs, who are in turn just a few points ahead of the Warriors. The Warriors play their home derby against Edinburgh on Saturday.
The two South African teams, the Toyota Cheetahs and Isuzu Southern Kings, only play again in the first week of January, and will be working from a position where they have games in hand when they resume. The Free Staters 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 their matches resume.