By Laurie Fitzgerald
Last weekend saw another host of bruising Heineken Cup encounters, and with Christmas just around the corner rugby fans around the continent are set for another set of European crackers.
This year’s pool stages have reached the halfway mark, and all six nations will have contrasting views of the opening few weeks of the campaign.
The Irish provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster have flourished and are all well in contention for qualification, whilst Connacht have put up a good account of themselves in their first ever campaign in Europe’s elite competition.
As for the Welsh regions, they’ve continued the form set out by the national side at the World Cup with the Blues, the Scarlets and the Ospreys all hoping to become the first team from Wales to reach a Heineken Cup final.
Scotland have seen their two participants really make a mark, with both Glasgow and Edinburgh earning two wins from their three games so far and both hoping to push on in the second half of the pool campaign.
It has been mixed fortunes for England’s sides; Saracens are the only side currently top of their pool, but while the likes of Leicester, Harlequins and London Irish are still in contention, Bath and Gloucester have the odds stacked against them, while last year’s finalists Northampton are all but out.
Things haven’t fared much better for the French teams. While pre-tournament favourites Toulouse have been in ominous form and Clermont Auvergne continue to grow in stature, their gallic counterparts of Biarritz and Castres have it all to do, while Racing Metro and Montpellier are both set for an early exit.
As for the Italians, Aironi have been unable to shake off their tag as the tournament’s whipping boys. However, Treviso have come of age this season and are by no means out of contention to reach the knockout stages.
This week will see the second part of the double-headers, with many sides facing do or die situations and others looking to strengthen their grips on pools that have been as competitive as ever.
Week 3 Results
Friday 9th December
Ulster 31-10 Aironi; Cardiff 25-8 Edinburgh; Harlequins 10-21 Toulouse
Saturday 10th December
Connacht 10-14 Gloucester; Treviso 30-26 Biarritz; Castres 41-22 Northampton; Scarlets 14-17 Munster; Racing Metro 14-34 London Irish; Saracens 31-26 Ospreys
Sunday 11th December
Bath 13-18 Leinster; Glasgow 20-15 Montpellier; Clermont Auvergne 30-12 Leicester
Munster v Scarlets; Northampton v Castres (Both Sunday)
Munster’s win in Wales last Saturday against the Scarlets means that the two-time winners have taken a stranglehold on proceedings in Pool One.
That 17-14 triumph has left them two points clear of Nigel Davies’ side, but they have home advantage on Sunday when they complete their double-header at fortress Thomond Park.
Ronan O’Gara has shown his class throughout this campaign and scored all their points last weekend, and the fly-half will be expected to control events and guide the Irish province to a crucial win.
The Scarlets will need to produce a similar display to the one that saw them win at Northampton in round two, but know that grit and determination will have to accompany their attacking prowess if they are to pull off a memorable win.
In the other game, Northampton entertain Castres as they try and restore some pride from what has been a hugely disappointing campaign.
Having been humbled in France last Saturday, the Saints will be determined to get revenge on a side that have grown in confidence as the tournament has gone on.
In years gone by Castres have had a reputation of being one of the weaker French teams, but a win at Franklins Gardens on Sunday will keep their faint hopes of qualification alive, depending on events at Thomond Park.
Edinburgh v Cardiff (Friday); London Irish v Racing Metro (Saturday)
Cardiff Blues kept up their 100% start to the European season by beating previously unbeaten Edinburgh at Cardiff City stadium on Friday night.
It was a win that also denied their Scottish rivals a losing bonus point, but with just three points seperating the two sides at the halfway mark, but Friday night’s game at Murrayfield could prove crucial to the outcome of this pool.
Edinburgh will feel that a win is an absolute must if they are to reach the knockout stages for only the second time, but if they were to defeat Cardiff then it could also open the qualification door for another side.
London Irish revived their hopes with a thumping win over Racing Metro in Paris last Saturday, and a repeat performance in Reading on Saturday could leave them as little as one point behind top spot.
For the big-spending Parisians it has been another woeful European campaign, and their focus will quickly turn to domestic matters for the rest of the season after their pool formalities are concluded.
But for the leading trio in this pool, results this weekend could leave them all vying for qualification in the final two rounds in the new year.
Montpellier v Glasgow; Leinster v Bath (Both Saturday)
Leinster’s win in Bath kept up their unbeaten start to their defence of the trophy and put them firmly in pole position in pool three.
Having wasted numerous chances at the Rec, they had to dig deep late on to avoid defeat and really open up the pool, and will now look to wrap up their place in the last eight in the next couple of matches.
Sir Ian McGeechan’s side will be frustrated that they weren’t able to see out a famous win, and now the odds of getting out of the pool is stacked against them.
In the other match, Glasgow know that they need to come up with a big away performance to keep on the tail of Leinster and maintain their hopes of winning the pool.
Montpellier have found the going tough in their debut Heineken Cup season, and the Warriors will fancy their chances of producing a big result in the Stade Yves-du-Manoir to at least keep up hopes of a best runners-up spot.
Aironi v Ulster; Leicester v Clermont Auvergne (Both Saturday)
With three teams still harbouring genuine hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals, this Saturday could prove pivotal to who will make it out of one of the toughest pools in this year’s competition.
Leicester will have spent this week regathering their focus after being outclassed by a Clermont side that have won their last 35 competitive games at home.
But on the road they are a very different prospect, as are the Tigers in their own backyard; Richard Cockerill’s men will know a win at Welford Road, as well as denying Clermont a bonus point, will be crucial to their chances.
As for Ulster, the other side in the pool four running, they will be expected to pick up a win away at an Aironi side that must be wishing this Heineken Cup campaign can finish as quickly as possible.
Having seen Leicester fail to take maximum points from their trip Italy, it’s a chance for the Irish province to gain an extra point on their rivals, which could be all important come the end of the pool.
Biarritz v Treviso; Ospreys v Saracens (Both Friday)
Without doubt the tightest pool of them all – just four points separate Saracens in first and Treviso in last, and all four sides will be full of belief when it comes to qualification for the quarters.
Sarries took a grip on top spot be defeating the Ospreys last weekend, but the losing bonus point will give the Welsh region every belief they can gain an upper hand at the Liberty stadium on Friday night.
However, a win for the English champions and they will take a giant stride towards clinching the pool. However, the two other teams in Pool five know their chances are still strong at this stage.
Treviso pulled off one of the shocks of the tournament so far by beating the Basque outfit, exploiting Biarritz’s frailties on the road.
But their home form has always been formidable, and this game will be a real mark of just how far the Italian side have come on the European stage.
Gloucester v Connacht (Saturday); Toulouse v Harlequins (Sunday)
Last Friday saw Toulouse take a big step to seeing off the threat of Harlequins by beating the Aviva Premiership leaders at the Stoop.
Now the conclusion of their double-header could be the end of the pool itself, as a home win for the French champions on Sunday will leave at least a seven-point gap with just two games remaining.
Quins know that if they are to maintain their hopes they have to pull out a big win in France, and will take heart that their English counterparts Gloucester came so close to beating Toulouse in their own backyard in the opening round.
As for the Cherry and Whites, their hopes are slim of acquiring a best runners-up spot, but they will know that a win at home to Connacht will set them up to finish their Heineken Cup campaign strongly.
Last Saturday’s defeat at the Sportsground was probably Connacht’s best chance of winning a game in their first campaign amongst Europe’s elite, and Eric Elwood’s men will find it tough to avoid six defeats from six with trips to Kingsholm and the Stade Ernest-Wallon.
So what do you think? How will this week’s Heineken Cup games turn out? Leave a comment and let us know your views.