More work to be done for Irish provinces in climax to Heineken Cup’s pool stages
Leinster, Munster and Ulster well placed to qualify but two more wins apiece required for home quarters
Luke Fitzgerald in action against Castres in their first Heineken Cup Pool One game against Castres Olympique at the RDS. If Leinster end the French side’s year-long unbeaten home record at the Stade Pierre-Antoine on Sunday and Northampton lose in Swansea on Sunday, Leinster will qualify for the knock-out stages.
After round three’s tournament high of eight wins on the fourth weekend, more than half the 24 teams remain mathematically in contention, including the entire Irish four, with a quartet of group shoot-outs set for this weekend.
All four of the Irish provinces remain in the mix, with Leinster, Munster and Ulster all atop their pools, with their destinies in their own hands and well positioned to advance to the knock-out stages in April and thereby keep their seasons vibrantly alive.
Work to do
Yet while that appears a healthy state of affairs, all still have work to do to achieve lucrative and advantageous home ties in the last eight.
Indeed Leinster and Munster, currently ranked sixth and fifth of the respective pool leaders, would need to win both their remaining games.
In Leinster’s case that would mean ending Castres’ year-long unbeaten home record at the Stade Pierre-Antoine on Sunday and Munster beating Gloucester at Kingsholm when renewing their rich rivalry in Saturday’s tea-time kick-off.
Despite having the tournament’s only unbeaten record, even Ulster most probably need to win both their remaining games to stave off Leicester as winners of Pool Five, or failing that, beat Montpellier with a bonus point this Friday and then earn a bonus point at Leicester while not conceding more tries and losing by five points or less to edge out the Tigers on their head-to-head record.
The average threshold for the second-best runners-up since bonus points were applied to the current format in 2003-04 is 21, with two teams progressing on 19 points, and six more advancing on 20 (although two didn’t despite accumulating 20 points).
It doesn’t help Leinster, or Northampton, that Pool One has been the tightest of the six, yielding the least number of tries (18) by some distance, and the least number of bonus points (three). In other words, only one team will most likely qualify.
Instead, the two pools with Italian teams are likely to produce the two best runners-up, with Zebre and Treviso managing just 40 points between them in eight defeats in which they have conceded 39 tries.
The next three runners-up will qualify for the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals – the route which Cardiff took in 2010 when becoming the first Heineken Cup qualifier to win the Amlin Challenge Cup, since when Biarritz in 2012, and Leinster, last season, have emulated them.
Victory over Zebre on Saturday will keep Connacht’s Challenge Cup hopes alive, although they would also need to beat Premiership high flyers Saracens away in London on Saturday week. Some good work achieved so far, but more to be done, alright.