CASTRES, FRANCE – Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat. And, before last weekend’s third round of Heineken Cup matches, everybody knew that Toulouse would beat Connacht at Stade Ernest Wallon.
Imagine what we’ll know by the end of this weekend.
Maybe we’ll know that Connacht have pulled off the impossible for a second time and done the double over Toulouse with a famous win at The Sportsground.
The Irish province gave Saracens a fright in Galway in the opening match of the competition, and have always been a difficult proposition at home. After last week’s astonishing, breakneck 16-14 victory at the home of the four-time Heineken Cup champions, which ended a European homeground winning-streak stretching back to 2009, anything is possible. Isn’t it?
We’ll have learned how much Toulon will miss Springbok trio Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha and Craig Buden. Marquee flyer Habana needs surgery after picking up a thigh injury in the first half of the Heineken Cup holders’ 14-9 victory over Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. He will be out of action until February. Hooker Buden has a torn bicep, while giant lock Botha is a doubt after needing 12 stitches in a facial injury.
With Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Danie Rossouw, and Andrew Sheridan also on the physio’s couch, even the mighty resources of Toulon are stretched. They should be too strong for Exeter at Stade Mayol, and they know now what to expect from the Premiership side. Just don’t necessarily expect a big score.
We may also have discovered how badly Racing Metro have needed Wales and Lions centre Jamie Roberts. The 27-year-old has endured three months on the sidelines after picking up an injury in only his third outing for the Top 14 side. But he’s on the brink of a return to action as the French look to avenge last week’s big defeat to Harlequins in Nantes.
Roberts boasts a perfect Heineken Cup record against Harlequins, with three wins to his name in Cardiff Blues colours. Quins will have their work cut out if Roberts lines up alongside Lions’ cohorts Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips and Jonny Sexton on Sunday.
But with more than a few big names of their own to count on, the Londoners will be confident of boosting their own qualification prospects with a win at The Stoop.
And we will have found out whether Irish sides Leinster and Ulster have one foot in the knockout phase of the Heineken Cup by maintaining their perfect records.
Three-time champions Leinster have the more difficult job as they entertain Northampton Saints at the Aviva Stadium. Last weekend’s bonus-point victory at Franklin’s Gardens will stand the Irish side in good stead, and they are hopeful of having a full squad to pick from. Northampton need, by head coach Jim Mallinder’s own admission, to ‘front up’ after their abysmal performance in last weekend’s 40-7 defeat. But Leinster in Dublin is not the place to go to recover from such an abject Heineken Cup humiliation.
Ulster, meanwhile, showed no mercy in beating Italian side Benetton Treviso 48-0 at Ravenhill last weekend. The 1999 champions dominated all areas, and will expect another win against the same opponents this weekend. It may not be as convincing, but it would be a major shock if they don’t claim a potentially crucial bonus-point win at Stadio Comunale di Monigo.
Despite their victory Ospreys at Stade Pierre Antoine last week, we already know that the odds – not to mention history – are stacked against Top 14 champions Castres. In the past eight Heineken Cups, only Leinster earlier this season and Saracens have won at Liberty Stadium. In fact, since Toulouse won in southwest Wales in 2005, the list of Top 14 sides to fall at Liberty is long and illustrious. Toulon, Perpignan, Bourgoin, Stade Francais, Castres themselves, Clermont and Toulouse have all tried and failed.
Castres’ away record in the Heineken Cup is nothing to brag about, either. When they beat Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun last season, they ended a losing streak on the road in the Heineken Cup that stretched back to an Italian job against Benetton Treviso in January 2007.
We’ll know how much tougher Perpignan are to beat at home as Munster head to Stade Aime Giral. The visitors reignited their Heineken Cup campaign with an awe-inspiring demolition job on the Catalan side at Thomond Park last weekend. But the Top 14 side are likely to give the two-time champions a serious run for their money in front of fans just as passionate as their own back in southwest Ireland.
And we’ll have found out if Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill was right to issue dire warnings about a possible Montpellier backlash following their defeat in a 41-32 Heineken Cup tryfest at Welford Road last weekend. The Top 14 side blow hot and cold, and – famously – can be devastating and disastrous in the same match. This one could go either way.
What else will we know by the end of the fourth Heineken Cup weekend? The margin of Saracens widely predicted big win over Zebre. The Londoners have won their last six games – including last weekend’s 39-10 win over the Italians. This week Sarries are at home. It could get ugly.
We’ll have found out whether last season’s losing Heineken Cup finalists Clermont are still at the top of Pool Four, after their trip to Welsh opponents Scarlets. Even a defensive bonus point may be enough to keep them at the top of the Pool, but Vern Cotter will expect more from his men at Parc y Scarlets.
The fate of Gloucester’s Heineken Cup campaign will also be common knowledge. The Cherry and Whites are currently second in Pool Six, but anything less than a bonus-point win over Edinburgh at Kingsholm could see their hopes of qualifying for the knockout phases disappearing over the horizon faster than Carlin Isles with the scent of the tryline in his nose.
And, finally, Cardiff Blues’ chances of qualifying from Pool Two will also be clearer. Like Gloucester, they sit in second place. Like Gloucester, they need to win to keep their Heineken Cup dreams in their hands. Unlike Gloucester, they’re away from home – at Glasgow Warriors’ intimate and intimidating Scotstoun. The Welsh side won 29-20 last week at the plastic Arms Park, and have talent aplenty to win on the road.
We’ll know all this by the end of the fourth Heineken Cup weekend. Until then, this is all just speculation…
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