Round Five of the Northern Hemisphere’s premier rugby competition is upon us! In four of the six pools, the leaders could find themselves toppled if they lose their matches while Munster and Leinster only have a slight cushion. And the closeness of the other pools should ensure some very competitive and entertaining match ups.
Regular watchers of the competition will no doubt agree that it is a clear step up from Aviva Premiership, RaboDirect Pro 12 or Top 14 rugby in terms of intensity, but what is it about the tournament that sees players step up a gear, and fans go delirious about their teams chances and the competition in general?
For me, as a fan of an Aviva Premiership side, it’s the chance to do battle with three teams that we don’t face every year, and the knowledge that 4 or 5 wins could see us in the knockout stage, where it’s then just 3 wins from silverware. Coupled with that it’s the prestige firstly of being there (having had to qualify to compete, by finishing in the top 6 in the Premiership the season before) and secondly of how you are viewed if you win it: The best team in the Northern Hemisphere.
Let’s see how this round shapes up:
Two time winners and pool leaders Munster have a home fixture against Castres Olympique, who currently sit bottom of the pile. The French side cannot qualify, and were thrashed by Northampton in round 4. They also harbour play off ambitions in the Top 14 so are unlikely to field all of their top names. That could be huge for Munster, if they can win with a bonus point, they are guaranteed top spot and a quarter final place with one game still to play, and I would imagine that the smart money would be on that being the case.
The second placed Scarlets are at home to a revitalised Northampton Saints, and know that they will have to win if they are to stand any chance of making it through. They have the attacking tools to cause anyone problems but the Saints have a score to settle after the home defeat in round 2. With big names such Tonga’uiha, Ashton and Foden starting to hit some form they could potentially cause an upset. Mathematically Saints can make it through, but realistically are hoping for second place and a drop into the Amlin at best, and given the form and momentum they now have, they could be a smart bet to upset the apple cart in this one.
Pool Two is altogether tighter and more difficult to call, with just 6 points separating top from bottom.
On Friday night leaders Edinburgh travel to Paris to take on bottom side Racing Metro, and neutral fans will be hoping for a repeat of the try-fest between the two sides in round 2 which saw Edinburgh win by the odd point in 95. The Parisiens are by no means certain of qualifying for next seasons tournament through their domestic league position, and will know that a bonus point win whilst denying Edinburgh anything will see them just a point behind their opponents with one round left to play. For many, Edinburgh are the surprise package in the pool, and they will need to pick themselves up from a big home defeat to Ulster in the RaboPro 12 this week if they are to put themselves in a strong position to qualify going into the final round of matches.
Cardiff Blues travel to face inconsistent London Irish, who have failed to string together two wins on the trot this season since early September. With Welsh World Cup stars such as Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts in their side, you’d have to fancy the Blues to put themselves in a strong position to qualify in this one, but you just never know which Irish side will turn up, the one that went to Paris and beat Racing Metro securing a bonus point, or the one that surrendered meekly to a Bath side who were on a 5 match losing streak. It really is impossible to call this pool right now, and may not be any clearer once the weekends action is complete either.
Champions Leinster appear to have a firm grip on Pool Three, with a six point lead over second placed Glasgow Warriors who they face at Firhill on Sunday. It was a huge win for Leinster in their first meeting in Dublin in round 2, and whilst the Irish side will be favourites for this match, it is unlikely to be as comprehensive if they do win. They also have the cushion of a final home match in round 6 should things not go their way. For Glasgow, it is do or die, as a defeat would leave them potentially struggling to secure second place with enough points to even drop into the Amlin Challenge Cup competition.
Bath Rugby travel to the Stade Yves du Manoir to face Montpellier, with Bath mathematically out, and Montpellier with just the slimmest of chances of winning the pool. Second place is also likely to be beyond both teams reach, and as such is effectively a dead rubber. Bath will want to build some momentum for domestic competition having recently ended a five game losing streak.
Whilst Pool Two is impossible to call, this one is very clear cut, it will be Leinster making the knockout stage, whatever happens this weekend.
Pool Four is absolutely intriguing with Ulster, Leicester Tigers and ASM Clermont Auvergne all battling to take top spot. Despite being sat in third place on 11 points, the French side will feel reasonable confident, as they face bottom club Aironi Rugby this weekend. You would have to feel this is a guaranteed 5 points for them.
Arguably the game of the round is in this pool is between two time champions Leicester Tigers and 1999 winners Ulster. Both sides warmed up for it with domestic wins this week, but Leicester will be missing a few key men such as England internationals Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi, as they seek to erase the memories of their heaviest ever defeat in the competition, the 0-33 reverse at Ravenhill in 2004. Ulster know that despite currently sitting top they have to win this one, as defeat will see them in 3rd place, and facing a trip to France. Whilst Leicester will sit above them with a home fixture against Aironi to come, defeat could be completely fatal to Leicesters chances, as they will be eliminated should they fail to come back from Ireland with a minimum of four match points. A tough one to call this, but Ulster don’t lose many at home, and I can’t see them getting turned over here, which will mean that Leicester can concentrate on the league, much to the dismay of their Premiership rivals.
Pool Five is another tight one, and on Friday night Italians Benetton Treviso travel to Swansea to take on the Ospreys. Although not mathematically out, Treviso would need results to go their way to top the pool and qualify, but will go to Wales full of confidence having held the Ospreys to a draw in round 2, and having beaten French powerhouse Biarritz Olympique at home in round 3. For the Ospreys it is simple, fail to win this one and they are out, and even a win will mean they have to travel to France and win in round 6 (which still may not be enough depending on how other games go). They are also not coming into the game in great form having lost to the Dragons last time out in the RaboDirect Pro12, and I can’t see this one being a classic, although I do expect that Ospreys will just have enough to get the win.
Biarritz Olympique travel to Vicarage Road to face Saracens, with the English champions knowing that a win will see them through to the knockout stages with a game to spare. Given both sides are in relative form this season, you have to fancy Saracens. I am sure the French side will push them hard, but ultimately poor results in their two away games so far mean that this will be the end of the road for Biarritz, and the best they can hope for will be a drop into the Amlin Challenge Cup as one of the pool runners up.
In Pool Six, the competitions most successful side Toulouse face Connacht at home, and will be confident of a bonus point win having warmed up by running in 6 tries against Lyon in the Top 14 this weekend. In contrast Connacht were beaten in the RaboDirect Pro 12 by bottom of the table Aironi Rugby, and it is almost impossible to see anything other than a comfortable Saturday afternoon for the French side.
In the other game Harlequins take on domestic rivals Gloucester at The Stoop and know that they must win if they are to stay in touch with Toulouse and give themselves a chance going into round 6. Both Quins and Gloucester go into the game off the back of defeats, but Quins should still be confident as they havenn’t lost many this season and are playing some good rugby. Gloucester are always dangerous with so many strike runners in their backline and this could be an absolute classic if the weather allows. At home you have to fancy Quins, but Gloucester are searching for consistency, and you just wouldn’t put it past them upsetting the apple cart and hindering Quins chances of progression in this years competition.
So there you have it, there are 12 Heineken Cup matches to be played this coming weekend, and when they are done, a few of the team’s European adventures may be over for the season. For those whose are not, there will still be home quarter finals to play for, due to the quarter final seeding system as opposed to there being an open draw. The advantage of that is that even in round 6, with qualification assured, there is still a prize to play for, which means the intensity rarely drops, and makes this the competition that we all know, love and want to see some more of. Just as well in that case that after the final match of the round is played, it’s only 5 days to wait before we get do it all again.