NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND – Though the Amlin Cup may not have as many defenders as its more illustrious brethren, the penultimate weekend of group action showed just how much European fans would be missing if the competition does not return in some form next year. There were close, defense-heavy matches, highlighted by the brutal clash between Newcastle and Brive, which ended in a 9-7 victory for the French side. The offensive flair that has characterized the tournament throughout its existence was also in evidence, as London Irish romped to a 79-3 demolition of Portuguese minnows Lusitanos. The London club now has an astonishing thirty-three tries in only five matches, eleven more than they have managed through twelve matches in the Premiership. This weekend, their strikes came through wingers Andrew Fenby and Tom Fowlie, who scored five tries between them. Four forwards got involved in the action, as Bryn Evans, Declan Danaher, Kieran Low, and Jebb Sinclair also crossed the whitewash to complete the demolition.
Oyonnax and Biarritz played out a thrilling match at the Stade Charles Mathon, as the smallest side in French rugby continued to prove their credentials with a 28-24 victory. Though Oyonnax was ahead 10-3 after a blistering start, Biarritz clawed their way back into the match before succumbing in the final mitues, despite a 77th minute try from Tedddy Thomas. Sale continued to heap misery upon Worcester, with a decisive 21-3 victory in front of a mere three thousand fans at AJ Bell Stadium in Manchester. Though director of rugby Steve Diamond lamented the Sharks inability to claim a bonus point in their victory, the Sharks victory leaves them in a strong position to advance, standing four points ahead of Biarritz at the top of the group.
Bath remained on top of Pool 2 with their decisive 30-13 victory over Newport Gwent Dragons, securing the English club’s progression into the knockout stages and ensuring that they will miss out on facing a team dropping down from the Heineken Cup. Bath played with a second string side, led out by young Tom Heathcote, who attempted to further his claims to a place in Scotland’s Six Nations with a strong showing, despite his lack of regular game time. The final matches next week in Pool 2 will be played for pride, with Bath eleven points clear of Bordeaux and the English side unlikely to risk any injuries during their chase for a playoff place in the domestic league. Bordeaux wrapped up a comfortable and expected victory over Mogliano, triumphing by a final score of 64-7.
Newcastle’s victory over Brive was unlikely to be enough to place them in the knockout stages, as they trail the French side by three points entering the final round of fixtures. Both clubs should expect victories next weekend, with the Falcons facing Bucharest at home and Brive returning to France to deal with Calvisano. Though the Italian side stunned Brive by obtaining a draw during the corresponding fixture in round 1, it is unlikely that Brive will be caught napping this time around. Though Calvisano have struggled at times, both they and Bucharest have come out of the group stages with some credit to their name, unlike some of the other non-traditional sides in the competition.
London Wasps were another club to book their place into the quarterfinals with a powerful display, dispatching Bayonne by a final score of 26-13. The English club saw Tom Varndell and Joe Launchbury collect welcome tries, as Dai Young ran out an experienced side clearly aimed at securing his team’s progression to the knockout stages for the second consecutive year. The Wasps will be hoping for slightly better luck from the fixture gods this time around, as they ran into the Irish juggernaut Leinster last year in the quarterfinals. Viadana saved some pride at home, managing to deny Grenoble with an 80th minute try, a full 70 minutes after their most recent score. The French club will be embarrassed, but will turn their attention back to the Top 14 without too much thought, as they improbably sit on the fringes of the playoff race, in spite of a negative forty five point differential.
Pool 5 has all to play for this weekend, as Stade Francais matched the London Irish’s bonus point victory to remain tied at the top of the table with nineteen points. Stade will likely escape the group by the skin of their teeth, as they will expect a bonus point victory against Lusitanos, which would secure their passage to the quarterfinals based on point differential in head-to-head play with the Irish. However, the Parisians have been careless before, as demonstrated by their narrow escape from Italy with a mere one point victory over Cavalieri.
The nature of the Amlin Cup allows for less forgiveness than the Heineken Cup, with only the group winner progressing. As such, the final round of competition should provide plenty of entertainment and drama, with tries aplenty.