Munster again get most favourable Heineken Cup schedule of Irish teams
Leinster disadvantaged by five-day turnaround and being first to play in final round
Simon Zebo of Munster competing with Leinster’s Fergus McFadden. Zebo should be back for the end of Munster’s Heineken Cup campaign. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
In stark contrast to Leinster, Munster have again emerged as the main beneficiaries amongst the Irish provinces in light of the ERC unveiling the dates and kick-off times for the final two rounds of the Heineken Cup pool stages yesterday. For the second year running, Munster kick-off at home in the penultimate brace of matches on the final Sunday of the group stages, thus knowing the outcome in four of the pools.
Whereas this time they host Edinburgh, in the same scenario of a year ago Munster went into their final pool game against Racing Metro at Thomond Park knowing that a win while scoring four tries would secure them a place in the quarter-finals as one of the two best runners-up at the expense of Leinster, who had beaten Exeter the day before.
It also helped that the Racing Metro flanker Antoine Battut was sent-off after five minutes by Wayne Barnes for kneeing Tommy O’Donnell and despite a nervous start Munster had three tries by half-time.
Coup de grace
Simon Zebo effectively secured their quarter-final qualification with his second and Munster’s fourth try in the 47th minute, before the winger went on to apply the coup de grace with a 54th minute try.
Zebo, along with Conor Murray, will have returned to full fitness in time for Munster’s pool finale, and admittedly before the final weekend comes to pass they will have the small matter of having to negotiate Gloucester at their Kingsholm bearpit in the penultimate round of matches on Saturday, January 11th, with a 6pm kick-off.
As Munster currently lead the pool by five points after Gloucester surprisingly slipped up at home to Edinburgh last Sunday, barring a catastrophe at Kingsholm, Rob Penney’s side should still be leading the group when they kick-off against Edinburgh. However, in order to retain any hope of securing a quarter-final at Thomond Park they will need to win both their remaining matches.
There will be another Anglo-Irish group summit meeting at tea-time on the final Saturday when the Leicester Tigers host Ulster at Welford Road in what is sure to be the pool decider.
Even if Ulster maintain the competition’s only unbeaten record when hosting Montpellier on Friday, January 10th, which would ensure they become the first team to qualify for the knock-out stages, presuming Leicester beat Treviso, then Ulster could still be edged out for first place and be consigned to an away quarter-final. This was the fate that befell them last season when beaten by Saracens at Twickenham.
Leinster will be understandably aggrieved at being dealt a five-day turnaround between a tricky trip to Castres on the penultimate Sunday before hosting the Ospreys at the RDS on the final Friday, even if this is the same schedule as their pool rivals.
Currently the sixth-ranked pool leaders after losing at home to Northampton without even a losing bonus point, not only will Leinster only have four full days’ respite between their last two pool games, but Matt O’Connor’s team will also be hugely disadvantaged by being the first results in on the final weekend.
Although they still have their destiny in their own hands, and should still qualify, effectively therefore they will be a target for all other prospective pool winners for the remainder of the final weekend.
Connacht have been handed back to back early Saturday afternoon games at home to Zebre and away to Saracens, with victory in the former likely to keep them in contention until the final weekend. Indeed, if Toulouse beat Saracens on the penultimate Sunday, the Saracens-Connacht game will be a shoot-out for second place.
Harlequins have been given every incentive to become the first team in Heineken Cup history to qualify after losing their opening two games by kicking off last on the final Sunday away to the Scarlets, although by then they will also need to have beaten Clermont in a Pool Four summit meeting at the Stoop. Victory in that game, while denying Clermont a bonus, could move them above last season’s beaten finalists.
The holders, Toulon, will bring the Cardiff Blues to the brand new Allianz Riviera in Nice, which has a 35,624 capacity and will thereby stage a Heineken Cup fixture for the first time, for what is another clash between the respective top two in Pool Two, on Saturday, January 11th. Having previously taken games to the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles, the uber ambitious French club continue their drive to monopolise the Cote d’Azur.