Updated: Friday, 10 January 2014 09:59 | By Agence France-Presse

Ulster eye early European Cup quarter-final qualification

Ulster could become the first team to qualify for the European Cup quarter-finals if they beat Montpellier with an attacking bonus point at Ravenhill on Friday.


Ulster eye early European Cup quarter-final qualification

Ulster's Andrew Trimble is congratulated by teammates after scoring a try during a European Cup match in southern France on October 19, 2013

Fresh from their 29-19 upset of Celtic League leaders Munster last weekend, Ulster will be looking to secure their place in the last eight with a game to spare.

And given their final Pool 5 match will be away to Leicester, who trail the Irish side by just three points and travel to group whipping boys Treviso on Saturday, Ulster will be keen not to be relying on a result at Welford Road in order to qualify.

In fairness, even a victory without a bonus should be enough for Ulster, the only unbeaten team left in the competition, as only an unlikely set of results in the pool of reigning European champions Toulon would then be able to deny the Irish a quarter-final slot.

However, they come into the match unsure about the fitness of a trio of key players.

Hooker Rory Best looks to have the best chances of playing as he hopes to make a startlingly quick return to action from a broken arm suffered against New Zealand in November.

Captain Johann Muller, the former South Africa lock, could also play as he looks to overcome a calf problem but wing Tommy Bowe appears unlikely to shake off his groin strain in time.

Either way, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has been keen to ensure his team keep their eye on the right game.

"There is no point in talking about Leicester," he said.

"We have got a pretty important game on Friday against Montpellier. If we don't do the job against Montpellier, what's the point worrying about Leicester."

Fellow Irish provinces Leinster and Munster could also book their quarter-final spots if they win and other results go their way.

In Celtic League and European Challenge Cup holders Leinster's case it would appear a pretty tall order.

They would need to win away to French champions Castres in Pool 1 and hope Northampton fail to win at Ospreys.

For Munster, it boils down to their trip to Gloucester where a win of any kind would see them through, unless Edinburgh earn a bonus point win at home to Perpignan, in which case a bonus point win would suffice for Munster.

But they are still unsure over the fitness of scrum-half Conor Murray, who has not played since limping out of December's home Pool 6 win over Perpignan with a knee injury.

"There always was a chance for Conor. Hopefully the work the medical team has been doing will come to fruition," said head coach Rob Penney, who is not expecting Murray's understudy, Cathal Sheridan to make it.

Toulon can also qualify from Pool 2 by beating Cardiff at home, unless the Welsh region earn a losing bonus point and the European champions fail to get the attacking bonus.

Clermont could secure their quarter-final place with a win over Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop but a defeat could see them knocked off the top of Pool 4 by the 2012 English champions.

In Pool 3, the top two clash at the Ernest-Wallon stadium as Saracens travel to Toulouse.

Whoever wins that will be almost through but even the losing team could expect to pick up one of the top two second-placed team slots with Saracens home to Connacht and Toulouse away to Zebre in their final games.

Fixtures:

Friday

Pool 4

Racing-Metro (FRA) v Scarlets (WAL) (2000 GMT)

Pool 5

Ulster (IRL) v Montpellier (FRA) (2000 GMT)

Saturday

Pool 2

Exeter (ENG) v Glasgow (SCO) (1500 GMT)

Toulon (FRA) v Cardiff (WAL) (1540 GMT)

Pool 3

Connacht (IRL) v Zebre (ITA) (1540 GMT)

Pool 4

Harlequins (ENG) v Clermont (FRA) (1335 GMT)

Pool 5

Treviso (ITA) v Leicester (ENG) (1335 GMT)

Pool 6

Edinburgh (SCO) v Perpignan (FRA) (1800 GMT)

Gloucester (ENG) v Munster (IRL) (1800 GMT)

Sunday

Pool 1

Ospreys (WAL) v Northampton (ENG) (1245 GMT)

Castres (FRA) v Leinster (IRL) (1245 GMT)

Pool 3

Toulouse (FRA) v Saracens (ENG) (1500 GMT)

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