Back-to-back ties can break spine of a season
RUGBY: The upcoming back-to-back fixtures in the Heineken Cup always had a make-or-break look to them and if anything the opening salvos in this season’s competition have merely underlined the feeling. Come the evening of Sunday week the prospects for the Irish teams ought to be clearer but as things stand only Ulster are favoured to win their pool.
The odds against the others advancing may even have lengthened by then. Look across the six pools and there is already a foreboding feel to them. The big three in France – Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont – occupy the leading three places in the Top 14 and also lead their pools with two wins out of two. Ditto the top two in the Premiership, Harlequins and Saracens, and the unbeaten leaders of the Rabo Pro 12, Ulster.
As the old pros continually say, you can’t win the cup in December, or January for that matter, but you can certainly lose it, and even Leinster’s chances of progressing to the knock-out stages look seriously endangered.
The two-time reigning champions are the only other unbeaten side in the competition, but with Clermont the only side having taken a maximum haul of 10 points to date, Joe Schmidt’s side face a daunting assignment on Sunday at his old team’s Stade Marcel Michel, where Clermont are defending a 50-game unbeaten run dating back to his time there, a freakish loss to Biarritz in November 2009.
Unless Leinster end that remarkable run in a reprise of last season’s semi-final and what is a fifth meeting in four seasons, to wrest control of Pool 5 back from their French adversaries they would need to earn a bonus point and follow that up with a bonus point win at the Aviva on Saturday week.
In that scenario, they would lead Clermont by dint of the head-to-head record, but otherwise Vern Cotter’s men would only need to match Leinster’s results in the final two rounds to win the pool.
Munster’s prospects are equally imperiled, and even more immediately under threat, as they face what amounts to a win-or-bust match at home to Saracens on Saturday given the pressure to win one’s home games. That somewhat self-destructive defeat in Stade de France to Racing Metro on the opening weekend has given them scant elbow room.
Similarly, unless they complete a double over Saracens, the English team will win Pool 1 by dint of matching Munster’s results in the final two rounds in January, and no one would want to be depending on favours from a Racing team by then liable to be out of contention.
By contrast, Ulster are in pole position in Pool 4, albeit with Northampton also on the front-row and, with the benefit of two days’ rest, itching to be the ones to end the only unbeaten record across all three major European leagues at Franklin’s Garden on Friday night.
Victory there, and completion of a double the following Saturday at Ravenhill, would see Ulster drive off into the distance, but even if they lose in Franklin’s Gardens, they can overtake Northampton and regain control of the group by winning the return fixture.
The potential problem for Leinster and Munster is that neither of their groups would be fancied to provide either or both of the two best runners-up for the quarter-finals. They are more likely to come from the two groups containing Italian sides.
In that regard, Connacht could potentially do them a favour (and they owe Leinster a couple) as well as themselves, by beating Biarritz in the Sportsground tomorrow night. As with last season, this has the feel of another one-off cup final about it for Eric Elwood’s men, but victory would also keep alive Connacht’s hopes of maintaining an interest in European matters into April given the third, fourth and fifth runners-up are re-routed to the knock-out stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Of course, it is the Heineken Cup, and a surprise or two could destabilise what has been a fairly strong form guide until now.