Gerry Thornley: These are the defining European rounds
Increasing signs that losing opening two Champions Cup matches need not be fatal
Isa Nacewa celebrates Leinster’s 2009 Heineken Cup win over Leicester. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The old adage goes that you can’t win the Heineken Champions Cup over the course of the opening two rounds in October, but you can lose it.
In truth, this maxim more readily applies to the double headers in December when the back-to-back rounds usually prove to be make-or-break.
Heading into rounds three and four over the next two weekends, this appears to have become even more accurate in recent years.
With the revised format of five groups of four as opposed to six groups of four, with the best three (or 60 per cent) of the pool runners-up advancing to the knock-out stages as opposed to the best two (or 33 per cent), there are increasing signs that losing the opening two matches need not be as damaging to a team’s hopes as was the case under the old format.
There’s long since been a view within Leinster that these upcoming back-to-back rounds define their Euro campaigns, and with good reason
In what acts as an ominous warning to Ulster ahead of their trek to Parc Y Scarlets on Friday night before then hosting the Scarlets in the Kingspan Stadium seven nights later, last season the Welsh region recovered from a 21-20 defeat away to Toulon and an 18-13 loss at home to Bath in the opening two rounds to actually win their group and earn a home a quarter-final.
The Scarlets are now once again in win-or-bust mode after initial defeats at home to Racing and away to Leicester, with Ulster’s need only marginally less acute.
There’s long since been a view within Leinster that these upcoming back-to-back rounds define their Euro campaigns, and with good reason.
Over the last ten seasons, going back to Leinster’s first Heineken Cup success in the 2008-09 season, of the 80 teams who have qualified from the pool stages for the quarter-finals, 73 of them have emerged from these double headers with at the very least a better head-to-head record over the two matches.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, 50 of those 73 qualifiers have not only emerged with the better head-to-head records from these third and fourth rounds, but have also completed back-to-back wins over those opponents, and the ramifications beyond the pool stages tend to be significant too.
Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised, as completing doubles not only goes a long way toward eliminating a team’s opponents, but gives the winners a heightened chance of both qualifying and securing a home quarter-final, and thus of reaching the semi-finals too.
Munster completed back-to-back wins over the Dragons and the Scarlets (so avenging their quarter-final defeat a year before) en route to topping their pools and winning the trophy in 2005-06 and 2007-08.
Repeating the trick when renewing the competition’s most familiar rivalry, at home to Castres next Sunday and away to them six days later, would again go a long way to securing a place in the last eight and maybe a home quarter-final too.
However, back in the ensuing 2008-09 season, Leinster actually made things a little more difficult for themselves after beating Castres 33-3 at the RDS in round three by contriving to lose to their French opponents 18-15 a week later.
This effectively cost them a home quarter-final, but despite this Leinster beat Harlequins 6-5 at the Stoop in the infamous Bloodgate match before overcoming Munster in a then world record crowd for a non-Test match of 82,208 at Croke Park to earn and win a final against Leicester in Murrayfield.
The following year, Toulouse had a better head-to-head record from their double header with Cardiff and enough points to earn a home quarter-final and a home semi-final, when beating Leinster, en route to beating Biarritz in the decider for their fourth cup.
Leinster’s doggedness in earning a losing bonus point in a 20-13 defeat away to Clermont in round three, before then beating them 24-8 a week later at the Aviva Stadium with the help of two tries by an inspired Cian Healy went a long way to securing a home quarter-final and eliminating Clermont on the way to the Johnny Sexton-inspired comeback over Northampton in the 2011 final.
Since then, beginning with Leinster’s repeat wins over Bath the following season en route to topping their group and beating Ulster in the 2012 final, six of the last seven champions have not only had better head-to-head records than their December opponents but also completed successive wins in rounds three and four.
The message is clear. The next two weekends will go a long way to defining the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final line-up
Leinster’s sleeves-rolled-up win away to Exeter and, indeed, their comeback victory over the same opponents a week later in the Aviva, went a long way to eliminating the English champions and setting up both Leinster’s home quarter-final and home semi-final.
In addition to the 73 qualifiers out of 80 who had the superior head-to-head records over rounds three and four, Saracens and Munster had identical records from their home wins against each other in the 2012-13 season when both progressed.
This means only five teams out of 80 to qualify for the quarter-finals in the last decade did so despite having inferior head-to-head records from rounds three and four. Four of them did so on the shirttails of the group winners and were knocked out in the quarter-finals.
Only one, Edinburgh in 2011-12, defied convention by coming off the worse from their consecutive meetings with Cardiff to still win their group and then reach the semi-finals.
In every year over the last decade, the ultimate winners and the beaten finalists have had the better head-to-head record over these third and fourth round double headers. More often that not, they’ve managed back-to-back wins as well. And in every other year apart from 2012-13, that’s applied to all four semi-finalists as well.
The message is clear. The next two weekends will go a long way to defining the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final line-up and, by the same token, the Irish provinces’ European campaigns.
If you’re serious about winning this thing, the next two weeks are an opportune time to show up.