CASTRES, FRANCE – An outbreak of math hysteria and premature speculation is the inevitable outcome of results in the penultimate week of the Heineken Cup pool stages.
That can be a shame, as it means the pulsating games that prompted it all can be forgotten in the heat of calculator meltdown. But it’s understandable given that, with a week of the group stages to go, three French, two Irish, and one English club are assured of a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
Final rankings – and with it crucial home advantage – have to be confirmed, but reigning champions Toulon, last season’s losing finalists Clermont, four-time winners Toulouse, duo of double winners Leicester and Munster, and 1999 champions Ulster have all already qualified.
Leinster are as good as through, though Top 14 champions Castres threatened to derail their qualification hopes, racing into a 14-0 lead in the opening quarter of their game at Stade Pierre Antoine.
Richie Gray and Brice Dulin touched down, the hosts’ pack was in control and centres Seremaia Bai and Remi Lemarat were making their feted opposite numbers Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll look ordinary.
But the Irish side became the first visitors to win here in more than a year as they fought back to win 29-22. Jimmy Gopperth led the way with two tries either side of halftime, but it was a 12-point turnaround in seven scintillating second-half minutes that gave Leinster a crucial win that means they just need a point from their final game – at home to Ospreys on Friday – to qualify as Pool One winners.
Two Aviva Premiership clubs are in contention for the remaining slot.
Saracens will qualify if they can see off the challenge of Connacht at Allianz Park on Saturday. Northampton are still in the mix, too – but they will need a bonus-point win over Castres at Franklin’s Gardens and hope that Leinster slip up at the RDS against Ospreys.
If they miss out on Heineken Cup qualification, Saints could be heading for the Amlin Cup – though Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh, Harlequins, Connacht, Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets, Gloucester, Exeter Chiefs and Castres are also in the running for the three second-tier competition places up for grabs for the top three Heineken Cup sides to miss out on qualification for the knockout phase.
Ulster kicked off the Heineken Cup weekend on Friday night with a relatively straightforward 27-16 win over Montpellier in front of a partisan 14,000 crowd at Ravenhill. Scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, who rejected a big-money move to richer-than-Croesus Toulon earlier this season, scored 17 points – including a first-half try.
His opposite number Eric Escande kept Montpellier in the hunt with three penalties and a conversion of his own, but Ulster’s three tries to the Top 14 side’s one was the key difference.
Home advantage did not count at Colombes, however, as – despite the efforts of British Lions Jonny Sexton and Mike Phillips – Racing Metro‘s season went from bad to worse with a 19-13 defeat against Scarlets.
Phillips, who made his home debut for Racing against the Welsh club where he started his professional career, grabbed an early try as the stuttering Top 14 side briefly threatened to deceive. But in the end, 14 points from the boot Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland and a stunning try by winger Kristian Phillips ensured that Scarlets still harbour faint hopes of qualifying for the last eight.
Clermont came from behind to win a close encounter at The Stoop against Harlequins and book their place in the last eight as Pool Four winners.
British media outlets have pointed to a cruel bounce that wrong-footed Quins’ full-back Mike Brown and let in Naipolioni Nalaga to score his 23rd try in 28 Heineken Cup games as a defining moment. But the fact remains that the hosts led from the 22nd minute to the 72nd before a Sitiveni Sivivatu try and a late Brock James penalty turned the game in the Top 14 side’s favour.
Leicester Tigers set up a mouth-watering Pool Five-deciding clash with Ulster next weekend by beating Benetton Treviso in Italy. The 2001 and 2002 Heineken Cup champions were made to work harder for a fourth straight victory than the 34-19 scoreline suggests.
Miles Benjamin touched down twice as they overturned a 13-8 halftime deficit in to the bonus-point win that leaves them just two points behind Pool leaders Ulster, with the weekend’s cracker at Welford Road to come.
The final glimmer of Exeter Chief’s fainter-than-faint hopes of qualification was extinguished as an international-filled Glasgow came back from 10 points down to win 15-10 at Sandy Park. The Seans – Maitland and Lamont – scored the two crucial tries after the hosts had raced into an early lead.
The Warriors welcome defending champions Toulon to Scotstoun next weekend. The Top 14 side have already qualified for the knockout phase of the competition thanks to a 43-20 revenge victory over Cardiff Blues at Nice’s Allianz Riviera.
Jonny Wilkinson’s five penalties and four conversions will have grabbed the headlines, but this was a game for the French side’s forwards, who won three penalty tries as they shoved Cardiff all over the rapidly disintegrating Nice pitch. David Smith also crossed as more than 31,000 fans witnessed Toulon pick up the bonus point they needed to secure top spot in Pool Two.
Connacht could only cross Zebre’s line twice as they notched up a widely expected and predictably comfortable but ultimately frustrating 20-3 win at The Showgrounds. However, Saracens defeat at Toulouse means that Pat Lam’s side still have a mathematical chance of reaching the knockout phase of the competition.
Saracens are just two points ahead of Connacht following a 21-11 defeat at Toulouse. Jean-Marc Doussain staked a strong claim for France’s number 10 jersey with a near-perfect display. He kicked all the host’s points and marshalled a clinical performance from the most successful club in Heineken Cup history. Sarries now have to beat Connacht next week to book their place in the last eight.
Edinburgh moved up to second in Pool Six with a 27-16 win over Perpignan in front of a near-empty Murrayfield. Five thousand fans actually turned up for the game, but the 67,000-seat stadium looked nearly empty.
Tries from Tom Brown, Cornell Du Preez and Dougie Fife and an unerring kicking display from captain Greig Laidlaw avenged October’s defeat in the reverse fixture. The Catalans grabbed a late consolation try that gave the final score a vaguely respectable look.
Proving that the final score does not tell the whole story, Gloucester and Munster played out a gripping end-to-end spectacle at Kingsholm. The final score was 20-7, as Keith Earls and skipper Peter O’Mahoney scored for the visitors as the Pro12 side won an epic game played at three times normal speed.
George North scored a stunning individual try as Northampton held on to the coat-tails of Pool One leaders Leinster with a rare 29-17 away win at Ospreys’ Liberty Stadium fortress.
The Saints became only the third visiting side in the past eight Heineken Cup competitions to head home from the Liberty with a win under their belts.
But, until North’s intervention – when he left Tom Isaacs and Jeff Hassler for dead before sprinting 70m to score – early in the second half, the game had been a stop-start affair, though the Saints pack were dominant at the set piece. It opened up the game, as Saints ran in two more tries and Ospreys added another to their first half effort in a frantic final period.
Comments? Questions? Thoughts? Let us know. Please also look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann and Declan Yeats, respectively.