Round 4 of the Heineken Cup always passes with a hint of regret – that there are only two more weekends of non-stop high-quality to look forward to.
We have picked out a few highlights from all the action in our usual round-up.
Northampton Saints secured another European win, but only just, as they crept past Benetton Treviso by 21 points to 18. The Italian side appears to be getting better all the time, and it won’t be long before they regularly win at home, and although Munster won’t take a victory for granted, they’ll need to be careful when they visit in January.
The former champions had a very successful weekend in my favourite match of the Round, and ended Perpignan’s run of home wins with a remarkable 37-14 victory. They sit proudly atop Pool 1, with Saints in second place, and with Perpignan on their way out of the competition in third. On this evidence, I’ll be backing Paul O’Connell’s men for the title, and although there is still a long way to go, they were mightily impressive in France.
Biarritz are now the only team to have won all their matches in the competition after their 26-8 away win over Newport Gwent Dragons. Whilst Gloucester clinched a much-needed win over Glasgow, Biarritz are pretty much through to the knockout stages already, whilst the other three teams in Pool 2 look very unlikely to qualify.
The Ospreys also remain unbeaten in this year’s Heineken Cup after another comfortable win over Viadana, but they will now face Clermont Auvergne and Leicester Tigers in the last two rounds, so their qualification is anything but certain. The Tigers bounced back from their miserable performance in France last week to beat Clermont, reminding us all about their ‘do-or-die’ mentality – if they had lost that match, they would probably have been tumbling out of Europe.
In Pool 4, Stade Francais gained their revenge over Ulster, despite the news of Julien Dupuy’s 24-week ban for gouging, whilst Edinburgh overcame Bath in one of the less exciting games of the weekend. Stade are back to the top of the table, whilst Bath are out and Ulster and Edinburgh will need maximum points from the last two games and other results to go their way.
Sale beat Harlequins once again, and kept their qualification hopes alive. They travel to Cardiff in the next round and then face Toulouse, and both teams have their own designs on qualification, although Cardiff’s hopes are slim. After their defeat to Toulouse, they are in third on 9 points and will need Toulouse to lose!
A highlight of the weekend for me was the Pool 6 game between Leinster and the Scarlets. The reigning champions were sublime at times, and ridiculous at others, but they eased past their opposition and laid down a warning to every other team in the competition. When they find their form, they will be almost unstoppable, and it was great to see that Leinster and Munster will ensure the French teams don’t have it all their way this season.
London Irish thrashed Brive, who clearly don’t give a hoot about the Heineken Cup and are now level on points with Leinster, and the last two rounds should be fascinating – I think they’ll both qualify, and Leinster should go far.
What do you think? The Pools are taking shape now, so let us know who you are backing for the title?