CASTRES, FRANCE – The group stage of what could still be the last Heineken Cup ever is drawing to a close.
Over the next two weekends, we will learn which teams will qualify for the knockout phase of the competition, which ones will be heading Amlin Cup-wards, and which ones will be putting on a brave face and trotting out ‘concentrating on the Top 14 / Aviva Premiership / RaboDirect Pro12′ homilies.
Ulster should just about make sure of qualification from Pool Five and maintain their perfect Heineken Cup record with a big win at Ravenhill over last season’s quarter-finalists Montpellier. The visitors’ interest in the competition is as good as over – and they have lost their last six away games in the Top 14.
Coach Marc Anscombe, however, is understandably cautious about his team’s chances – even with the possible return of Rory Best and Johan Muller. He’s right to be, too. The Montpellier that came within a few minutes of beating Leicester was a very different Montpellier from the one that gave up the ghost against Ulster.
Another five points this Friday would put Ulster on the brink of the knockout phase – but then they still have to face Leicester at Welford Road.
The Tigers are away at Treviso this weekend. It’s a game Richard Cockerill’s side should win. Whether they’ll pick up a try-scoring bonus, however, is another question entirely. Anything less than a five-point win would mean they’ll need to destroy Ulster in the final game.
Like Montpellier, Scarlets’ Heineken Cup campaign is just about over. They come in to the final two games lying third in Pool Four, five points behind second-placed Harlequins. What they’re playing for then, is pride. So it’s probably a good time for them to be heading for Colombes, to face big-spending Top 14 underachievers Racing Metro.
The game is likely to be a Valleys reunion, as Simon Easterby’s side could line up against Racing’s own Welsh contingent of Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate and former Scarlet Mike Phillips. The scrum-half is set to make his home debut for Racing against the team with whom he started his professional career.
The big match of Pool Four will be at The Stoop, where second-placed Harlequins face pool-toppers Clermont. The hosts’ Heineken Cup revival could see them become the first team to qualify for the knockout phase of the competition after losing their opening two games. The French side haven’t travelled well this season, so a home win is eminently possible – but Quins need bonus points to make sure of qualifying. That’s unlikely against Clermont, even at home, which means next week’s trip to Scarlets takes on even greater significance…
It’s still mathematically possible for Exeter to finish top of Pool Two. No, really it is. They just need two bonus-point wins… Oh, and for Cardiff Blues to do a Grenoble and win in Toulon, then Warriors to beat the reigning Heineken Cup champions at Scostoun. So, despite the maths being in their favour, it’s pretty unlikely.
That said, however, second place and an Amlin Cup adventure is still possible, so expect the Aviva Premiership side to play out of their skins at Sandy Park against Glasgow on Saturday.
In fact, Grenoble’s Top 14 victory at Toulon last weekend will have done Cardiff Blues no favours. Nor will the Blues’ epic win over the Heineken Cup champions in the reverse fixture at the plastic Arms Park in October. It would be safe to say that this is not a weekend to be heading to Stade Mayol.
It’s probably being taken as good news in Cardiff, then, that the game is being played at Nice’s still shiny and new Allianz Riviera. Toulon have played here just once. They entertained Clermont in the Top 14 early this season. They won. Though not by much – and on a pitch that was barely suitable for top-flight professional rugby.
That band of Connacht brothers who won at Toulouse in December will be dining out on that historic Heineken Cup match for years to come. And they should pick up a bonus-point win over Zebre this weekend to move up to a respectable 14 points in Pool Three. It’s unlikely to see them qualify for the Amlin Cup, however, as Toulouse and Saracens duke it out.
Sunday’s clash between Toulouse and Sarries at Stade Ernest Wallon is likely to decide who will finish at the top of Pool Three – though both sides are pretty certain to be in the quarter-final mix. The Top 14 side – and four-time Heineken Cup champions – will be determined to prove Connacht’s shock win in France was an aberration. The Londoners will have to be at their very best to avoid a big defeat.
Before this season’s competition kicked off, Pool One was labelled the Heineken Cup’s Pool of Death. Two former winners, the defending Top 14 champions and a gritty Welsh side made it difficult to predict who would qualify.
Now, three-time champions Leinster are firm favourites, but the Dubliners face a tricky job this week, as they look to become the first visiting team to win at Top 14 champions Castres Olympique’s intimidating and intimate Stade Pierre Antoine since December 2012.
The good news for the Leinster is that their big rivals for Pool One top spot, Northampton Saints face a mission impossible of their own this weekend. Like Castres’ home, Ospreys’ Liberty Stadium is a fortress. Leinster and Saracens are the only sides to have won their in the past eight Heineken Cup tournaments. Ospreys may be down and out of this tournament, but don’t expect them to give up that proud home record without a fight.
Pool Six has been closer than many would have predicted at the start of the Heineken Cup. Only seven points currently separate leaders Munster and fourth-placed Perpignan. Expect Munster’s mighty pack to leave battered and bruised Gloucester bodies all over Kingsholm as they march on to the brink of the quarter finals.
A win for the Irishmen will extinguish the last glimmer of Edinburgh’s faint hopes of qualifying for the knockout phase, even if they – as is widely expected – beat Perpignan in front of four people and a dog at Murrayfield. An Amlin Cup berth is a more likely prospect for the Pro12 side – though the Cherry and Whites will have something to say about that…
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