European rugby’s attention may soon turn to the Six Nations – as it should, it’s a fantastic tournament – but there’s the small matter of the Heineken Cup quarter finals to be decided first. Richard Browne sets the scene for a weekend that will see some dreams of glory continue and some old reputations crumble into dust.
Saracens are not confirmed as the winners of this pool, but it really is theirs to lose. An extraordinary comeback victory at Racing Metro 92 – Owen Farrell kicking a competition record 10 penalties – means that the English side have what would appear to be the simple task of beating Edinburgh at home to progress in top spot. Edinburgh regained some pride by scoring a try – make that two tries – at the fifth attempt in this season’s competition against Munster last time out, but they still have zero points. With Edinburgh having little to gain from the match, it should be a walkover for Saracens – but when has sport ever bent to our expectations?
If Saracens are a toenail away from the last eight, then Munster are hanging on by their fingertips. The proud red beast that roared to two wins in this competition (2006 and 2008) has suffered some serious hiccups this season, in the RaboDirect Pro12 and in Europe. In truth, their star has been on the wane for some time, as the champions have got older and fresh blood has not been pumped in. The Munstermen can still qualify, but they must beat Racing Metro at Thomond Park, gain a four-try bonus point and hope other results go their way – as they play on Sunday, they will know the outcome of most of the matches, which could prove a blessing or curse.
Two more former champions face off in a winner-takes-all clash at Welford Road. Leicester, having escaped Wales with a fortunate 15-all draw with the Ospreys, host Toulouse, who recorded a five-try win over bottom club Treviso. The Ospreys, and Treviso as well (they may only have one point but only lost by a point against Leicester in December), have fought bravely, but their challenges are at an end.
Toulouse have a two point cushion over Leicester, so they progress if they avoid defeat. Leicester have to win to qualify. This Toulouse side have not shown the imperious form of previous outfits; they did slip to defeat away to the Ospreys last month. If Toby Flood is able to orchestrate the Leicester attacks effectively, there is no reason to believe that the home side cannot do what is needed.
Harlequins are already through to the quarter finals, having strolled through this group. Their last match will be their toughest, however, as it is away to second-placed Biarritz. The French side still have hopes of qualifying as one of the best runners-up, but they are a point worse off than Munster and so need other results to spin even more in their favour. That is assuming they manage to beat a team going for six wins from six and which has scored 227 points in the first five matches…
Connacht host Zebre in the other Pool 3 game. The Irish team have had a decent campaign, beating Biarritz and collecting eight points up to now. It won’t matter too much, but there’s a good chance they can finish off with a flourish against the only team rivalling Edinburgh as 2012-13’s worst.
Ulster, like Harlequins, are confirmed quarter finalists. They travel to Castres hoping to gain more confidence from a good away performance and result. There are problems for them – in-form full back Jared Payne is struggling for fitness ahead of the game, the team is not currently playing at its best (their last pool win, against Glasgow, was quite laboured)… and Ulster have never won a Heineken Cup match in France. Thank goodness they have already qualified.
Northampton, who sit second, travel to Glasgow hoping to record a win that would give them a chance in the second-placed-teams mixing pot. Once again, they can only cling to the hope that other results might go their way.
Clermont Auvergne have made the last eight and look champions in the making, having steamrollered what should have been a difficult pool. They travel to the Scarlets aiming to make it six wins from six – two of their victories have been been against Leinster, the holders.
Leinster, having lost twice to Clermont, knew they had to obtain bonus-point wins from both of their last two games to stand a chance of making the last eight. Part one was accomplished against the Scarlets – now they must do it away to Exeter. A tough challenge, but anyone watching Leinster over the last few years will tell you that – most of the time – what Leinster want, they get. They are still an excellent team, containing the cream of Irish rugby. It could be them against Munster for the last quarter final spot. Muster will know what they need to qualify, having seen Leinster play the day before. But will they be able to meet the requirements?
Already-qualified Toulon (another team with a 100% record) travel to Montpellier on Saturday. This looks to be Toulon’s toughest game of the lot – Montpellier are second in the pool, on 18 points. That’s a good points tally for a second-placed team, but they may need a bit more to secure passage to the quarter finals. This could be tight. Or will Montpellier want it a great deal more?
And then we have Cardiff Blues against Sale. Both have endured this pool rather than enjoyed it, being a long way short of the French sides. Cardiff are currently bottom, having lost to Sale previously, but they are a better team than their English opponents. If I had to choose a side to restore some pride after a disappointing campaign, it would be the Welsh hosts.