Gerry Thornley: European tournament leaves domestic leagues in the shade
There is much to be decided in next week’s final round of Heineken Cup pool games
English critics of the Heineken Cup will no doubt cite the relative lack of customary drama on next weekend’s final round of pool games as further evidence of the tournament’s decline.
Yet even though it is unusual to have six teams already qualified for the knock-out stages of European rugby’s premier tournament, there is still plenty of jostling for position after another absorbing weekend of rugby which the various domestic leagues can rarely match.
The tournament organisers are keen to highlight that “as many as 18 Heineken Cup clubs are still in contention for European silverware” by dint of incorporating the Amlin Challenge Cup into their calculations.
True enough, besides which there will be few better climaxes to round six than the Pool Five meeting between Leicester and Ulster at Welford Road next Saturday tea-time.
With both teams through in what amounts to a shoot-out for a home quarter-final, results and bonus points have conspired to ensure that Ulster effectively need to complete the double over Leicester to achieve their aim of a quarter-final at Ravenhill. A draw would suffice, or an even unlikelier defeat with two bonus points.
A victory would earn them a home quarter-final as top seeds against one of the second best runners-up. That would be Saracens if they beat Connacht, or Leicester if Ulster deny them even a losing bonus point and Saracens won with a bonus point.
Were Connacht to beat Saracens it would give them an excellent chance of reaching the Challenge Cup quarter-finals as one of the next three best runners-up, and would also provide a Heineken Cup lifeline to a host of others, led by Northampton. Reaching the Heineken Cup themselves even by beating Saracens looks a long shot given Connacht’s try tally of seven.
Leinster require a point at home to the Ospreys on Friday to nail down qualification as Pool One winners, for even if Northampton beat Castres at home with a bonus point Leinster would top the group given their superior head-to-head record with the Saints.
To obtain a home quarter-final looks a long shot however as Leinster have the least points and least tries of the group leaders while they are further disadvantaged by the scheduling which ensures their tallies will be the first completed of the pool winners.
Realistically, to achieve a home quarter-final, Leinster would need to win with a bonus point and then hope that two of the following happen: Toulon lose in Glasgow; Toulouse lose to Zebre; Clermont lose at home to a Racing Metro side already out of contention; or Munster don’t beat Edinburgh at home with a bonus point and, with two more tries at the moment, fail to match Leinster’s try tally.
Munster will, by contrast, know the outcome of four pools when they kick-off in Sunday’s earlier game, and could have a home quarter-final to aim for if Toulon slip up in Glasgow.
Alternatively, if they win with a bonus point, they would be left hoping Clermont don’t beat Racing with a bonus point as well, although Clermont have the advantage of kicking off after Munster’s game is completed and know that they merely have to match whatever Munster do to finish above them in the last-eight ranking.
As is often the case in the Heineken Cup, the cream has risen to the top. The heavyweight French trio of Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse have all advanced and look like earning home quarter-finals, whereas of their other four entrants only Castres are still even in contention for a place in the Challenge Cup.
Leinster should ensure that the heavyweight Irish trio join the French threesome, with Saracens favoured to accompany Leicester into the last eight.
Ironically, given English criticism of the tournament format for including what they regard as Euro lightweights, the two English qualifiers could yet scrape in as the two best runners-up, and however it pans out, they will have been partially indebted to being permed with the Italians sides.
In those four games against Zebre and Treviso, Saracens and Leicester filled their boots with maximum hauls of 10 points each and a combined total of 22 tries.
In any event, the last eight will have won 13 of the previous 18 tournaments, not to mention a truckload (63) of quarter-final appearances between them.
As things stand, the quarter-final line-up would read: Ulster v Saracens, Toulon v Leicester, Toulouse v Leinster and Clermont v Munster.
However, were Leicester to beat Ulster it would throw up all manner of potential permutations. Conceivably, four teams (Toulouse, Clermont, Toulon and Leicester) could all finish on 24 points and with try tallies in close proximity.
The quarter-final could then look something like: Toulouse v Saracens, Clermont v Ulster, Toulon v Leinster and Leicester v Munster. The semi-final draw will take place after the completion of Sunday’s game in Thomond Park.
That Connacht are still in contention along with Northampton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Harlequins, Glasgow Warriors, Scarlets, Gloucester, Exeter Chiefs and Castres is a remarkable achievement given their budget, especially compared to Saracens and Toulouse. And to think that they nearly beat Saracens on opening night in the Sportsground.
That they are in the shake-up is largely due to their stunning win in Toulouse, and Leinster’s rollercoaster victory in Castres on Sunday not only completed another Irish four-timer over the weekend, but ensured that all four Irish sides won away in France for the first time ever.