With two rounds remaining in this year’s Heineken Cup group stage, the quarter-final line up is beginning to take shape. Here are the teams who we expect to progress, pool by pool:
One thing we can safely say was that no one predicted Northampton’s disappointing performances in the opening three matches. Played three, lost three, meant that their chances of progressing were all but over. Munster could also have lost a couple of matches, but for two brilliant swings of the boot from Ronan O’Gara late on against Northampton and Castres, leaving his side top of the pool. The Scarlets trail in second place but have to travel to Castres, whilst the Red Army must travel to Frankin’s Gardens. Expect Munster to progress however.
Probably the hardest pool to call. All four teams have picked up significant victories, but London Irish and Racing Métro would need a miracle to progress. That leaves Edinburgh and Cardiff, and with Edinburgh facing arguably the hardest fixture travelling to France this weekend, it could all come to the final weekend when Irish travel to Scotland and Cardiff host the erratic Racing. Cardiff will not be underestimating travelling to the Madejski Stadium either given Irish’s good run at home. We’ll go with Cardiff, but Edinburgh could well be one of the best runners up.
A no contest. Montpellier have made an impressive start to their debut season in the Heineken Cup, whilst Glasgow have failed to live up to their strong domestic form. But Leinster have been all over Pool 3, thrashing Bath in Dublin and Glasgow too for good measure. They started slow drawing in Montpellier, but since then have been unstoppable. They could well qualify as top seeds.
Another one of the hardest pools to call, given that only three points separate Ulster, Leicester and Clermont at the top. A lot therefore hinges on tomorrow night’s fixture at Ravenhill between Ulster and the Tigers, given that Ulster then must travel to Clermont in Round 6. Clermont should pick up a bonus point when they travel to Italy this weekend, whilst Leicester will look to do the same when they host Aironi next weekend. Of the three sets of fixtures, Clermont visiting Aironi and hosting Ulster appears the easiest. What happens tomorrow night in Ulster in the end may mean nothing at all, because even if Ulster defeat Leicester, the odds of them winning in France are against them.
Hinges on this weekend’s game in Watford. Saracens have been preparing in a unique manner by sunning themselves down in Cape Town for a week before they take on Biarritz, and know that a win will pretty much guarantee them the group. If disaster strikes however and Biarritz snatch a win, and the Ospreys pick up a bonus point win against Treviso at home, then Pool 5 becomes edgy. Saracens would have to travel to Italy and win, as would the Ospreys to San Sebastián. Your money would on one of the two sides competing in Watford this weekend progressing as group winners. Home advantage might swing it Saracens way.
Without getting too hysterical, Harlequins winning in the south of France has changed everything. When you lose at home to Toulouse, you do not expect to go and win away. That result was filled with excellent attacking from Quins and the magical boot of Nick Evans, and has left them one point behind Toulouse going into the final rounds. The general expectation would be for Toulouse to pick up a bonus point at home to Connacht, which would mean Harlequins would have to defeat Gloucester at home and then Connacht away with the same success. Of course Gloucester as an outside bet could defeat Harlequins away, and then shock Toulouse at home to go top. It all hinges on Toulouse travelling to Gloucester. For that reason, it could be Harlequins.
Leinster (1) v Leicester Tigers (8)
Saracens (2) v Toulouse (7)
Munster (3) v Cardiff (6)
Clermont (4) v Harlequins (5)
by Ben Coles
Below is a video preview of the final rounds with Sean Lamont, Jamie Heaslip and Jamie Roberts, courtesy of RugbyMedia: