Here we go, 2nd last round of the pool stages, everyone’s got their calculators out and for a lot of the teams it’s still all to play for. There are plenty of sound arguments for slimming this competition down to just 20 teams but you have to admit that having 24 teams, all watching each other’s progress across all the pools, with their fates interconnected makes for a brilliantly interesting rugby tournament.
This pool is pretty tightly fought between the top three (sitting on 14:12:11 points respectively). Saracens are in the driving seat right now, but I wouldn’t discount Racing Metro at home, they need the bonus point win this weekend, but for Sarries winning this will surely set them up for the prize of a home Quarter Final. Meanwhile Munster need a bonus point win over Edinburgh now too and given how poorly the Scots have been playing this season, I don’t see the visitors being denied.
Racing Metro 92 vs Saracens: Saracens by 3
Edinburgh vs Munster: Munster by 15
This is another incredibly close pool. When Ospreys faced Leicester earlier this season it was nip and tuck the whole way until the last ten minutes, when Leicester quite clearly just went up a whole other gear to score three tries and power away from the visitors. If you asked me before last weekend I’d have backed the Ospreys on home turf, especially given their surprise defeat of Toulouse. Now after that woeful performance against Zebre in the Pro12 I’m not so sure. I think this is the toughest one to call of the lot. As for the other match, while Treviso aren’t the whipping boys of old, I think Toulouse simply have to much class to lose this one at home and given the head to head they’ll have with Leicester next weekend they won’t slip up here.
Ospreys vs Leicester Tigers: Ospreys by 3
Toulouse vs Benetton Treviso: Toulouse by 15
Top of the pool with 19 points out of a possible 20 and current domestic champions, Harlequins are just a solitary point away from certain qualification to the knockout stages. A strong win here sets them up for a potential home Quarter-final and despite Connacht’s ability to stun teams at the Sportsground, it’s highly unlikely at the Stoop. Speaking of being stunned at the Sportsground, the other match in Pool 3 is Biarritz (Connacht’s H-Cup victims of this season) against still winless Zebre. Zebre have been both downright awful at times and incredibly unlucky in other encounters. Is this going to be their first shock win?
Harlequins vs Connacht: Quins by 17
Zebre vs Biarritz: Zebre by 1 (I must be mad!)
First up in this pool is a repeat of an earlier clash between the current top two teams in the Pro12, where Glasgow have already lost to Ulster at Ravenhill. I expect more of the same here, especially after seeing the team-sheets. In the other fixture, Castres come to Franklin’s Gardens looking to do the double on Northampton this season. Not impossible but a big ask considering their away record in the Heineken Cup.
Ulster vs Glasgow Warriors: Ulster by 18
Northampton Saints vs Castres: Saints by 11
Clermont are the firm favourites to lift the Heineken Cup this year and rightly so. Exeter were unlucky not to snatch a draw with the current champions Leinster earlier this season but their opponents have gone undefeated at home in over 50 games. They might keep it close for the first half but Clermont will absorb any and all pressure and pull away comfortably in the end. For Leinster to have any hopes of making it to the knockout stages this season they need a big win over Scarlets and other matches to go their way. They’ve only got three tries this season, they need to add at least four here.
Leinster vs Llanelli Scarlets: Leinster by 15
Clermont Auvergne vs Exeter Chiefs: Clermont by 34
Toulon are one of only three unbeaten sides in this season’s pool stage and despite their recent shock loss to Racing Metro last weekend are still no. 1 in the Top14. As for Cardiff, a surprising win over Munster in the Pro12 last weekend notwithstanding, I don’t think they can pull off a win here especially with Toulon having something to prove to their home crowd. Sale’s season this year has been truly awful. With the Heineken Cup now totally out of reach they must now fight hard to avoid relegation in the Premiership; a fact reflected in their team selection this weekend against Montpellier. I expect the visitors to win fairly comfortably.
Toulon vs Cardiff Blues: Toulon by 22
Sale Sharks vs Montpellier: Montpellier by 17
How do you think the weekend will unfold? Feel free to share your predictions below.
By John O’Brien