CASTRES, FRANCE – The penultimate round of Amlin Cup matches kicks off what promises to be an epic two weeks of European rugby – and the race for a place in the final eight is really hotting up.
Nothing is certain in any of the tournament’s Pools, but Pool Three could be decided on Thursday evening when second-placed Newcastle Falcons entertain leaders Brive at Kingston Park.
A win for the Top 14 side would take them to the brink of qualification for the knockout phase. It would, however, be their first victory on the road this season, which makes it seem unlikely. Worse, north-east England has been a graveyard for French sides, with Lyon, Toulon, Bourgoin, Albi and Montauban all falling there in recent seasons. A home win would leave the hosts in the box seat, with Bucharest Wolves set to visit next weekend.
A bonus-point victory for Stade Francais against I Cavilieri Prato at Stade Jean Bouin on the same night would take last season’s losing Amlin Cup finalists to the brink of qualification from Pool Five.
Their big win over Aviva Premiership side London Irish last time out leaves Stade’s destiny in their own hands, as they welcome the Italians this week and face Portuguese representative XV Lusitanos in the final round of matches next weekend.
But they have to ensure the Exiles can’t catch up, which means anything less than five points from each of their final two games will set a few nerves jangling – especially as it’s a fair bet that the Aviva Premiership side will rack up five points at home to Lusitanos.
It’s win or bust for Bordeaux on Friday. A draw or – heaven forbid – defeat at home to Mogliano will mean they have no hope of progressing beyond the group stages despite a big win over Newport-Gwent Dragons in the fourth round of the Amlin Cup in December.
Pool Two is complicated. The real difficulty for Bordeaux is beyond their control this week as the Dragons host Bath, while they face a massive test if they are still in the mix next weekend – which, in fairness, they should be – when they head to England.
Previous Heineken Cup and Amlin Cup winners Bath know that a draw in Wales would make sure of top spot in the group with a week to go. Even if they lose in Newport, Bordeaux will still have to win at The Rec next weekend … and then pray that Mogliano can pull off a major shock at home to the Dragons.
Sale Sharks go into their game at home to Aviva Premiership rivals Worcester Warriors, knowing that a bonus-point win could see them reach the knockout phase of the Amlin Cup for the first time in six seasons.
Destiny is not entirely in their hands… yet. While it’s likely they will beat a side that has only won once this season – and in the Anglo-Welsh Cup at that – they do need Oyonnax to make sure that Biarritz leave Stade Charles Mathon empty handed. If the Basque Country side head home with even a defensive bonus point, the pool will remain alive going into next weekend’s final round.
The Amlin Cup is as good as over for Pool Four opponents Grenoble and Viadana – but don’t expect the Top 14 side, who are enjoying a tremendous domestic run – to go easy on the Italian side. Viadana have shipped 273 points in four games. Expect that to be well over 300 after Saturday’s game at Stadio Comunale Pierluigi Zaffanella.
Viadana v Grenoble may be a dead rubber, but Pool Four is still up for grabs as second-placed Bayonne entertain group leaders Wasps at Stade Jean Dauger, with top spot very much up for grabs.
Three points separate the two sides – and history favours the Aviva Premiership side. They have won five of their seven previous encounters. A home win would mean that qualification issues would not be confirmed until next weekend. An away win, however, would mean that Wasps will make sure of their place in the knockout phase with a week to go.
Pride alone is at stake as Calvisanos entertain Bucharest Wolves at the Peroni Stadium. The Italians will have revenge in mind, after losing 37-15 in Romania last time out. Like Wasps, however, history is in their favour. They have won two of the three previous clashes – and they’re at home.
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