Schmidt's observations true, flaws of Cup are also its beauties
ON RUGBY:Amid all the bleating and bully boy demands from the English and French clubs to suit their own, if contrasting, needs entirely, the Heineken Cup has never been without its flaws. That said, as Joe Schmidt observed in the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat to Clermont, its flaws are also its beauties.
So it is that Leinster, despite being the clearest of number one-ranked teams in the competition’s history, can be in the same pool as the team they beat in last season’s semi-finals, along with an English and Welsh club. Likewise, teams drawn with Italian opposition often have a better chance of advancing – Biarritz and Leicester being serial beneficiaries.
Yet this may not happen this time, with Biarritz especially the last-ranked runners-up as things stand. Pool Six, without an Italian or Scottish team in sight, has seen Toulon and Montpellier stretch clear. You had to double check who was the top seed here, and double check again after discovering it is Cardiff – ranked fifth in the ERC rankings after a semi-final and quarter-final in the previous four years, as well as winning the Amlin Challenge Cup three seasons ago. The Blues have one point from four games.
Thus far, the competition had contained unusually few surprises but last Saturday, aside from the home defeats for Leinster and Ulster, Treviso nearly beat Leicester and the Ospreys beat Toulouse. Alas, on a weekend when 11 sides from the Rabo PRO12 faced English or French opposition, the Ospreys recorded the only win. Ouch. But one of the beauties of the Cup is that in stark contrast to football’s Champions League, where clubs need only be concerned about their own pools, you have to keep an eye on other pools as well. And, akin to Connacht beating Biarritz, the Ospreys beating Toulouse could well be a helpful result for Munster and/or Leinster.
Because of those two results in pools containing Italians sides, the maximum Biarritz can obtain (which is unlikely) is 19 points and that may now be the threshold in the Toulouse/Leicester pool as well.
Of the Irish, Ulster are still best-placed, although their prospects of a home quarter-final have been imperilled given the hot pace being set by Harlequins, Clermont and Toulon, and to do so they will probably have to do something they’ve never done before, namely win on French soil against Castres in round six. What’s more, they must do so without Johann Muller (and how sorely he was missed), Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe.
Many Leinster fans will assuredly have examined the other groups intently, given one of the two best runners-up slots is the champions’ only viable route to the knock-out stages.