So the dust has settled on Round 5 of the Heineken Cup, and two sides have assured their places in the knockout stages, current champions Leinster, and two time winners Munster. Their safe progression with a game to spare points towards real positivity for Irish rugby right now, but perhaps not as much as Ulster’s dismantling of Aviva Premiership powerhouse Leicester Tigers on Friday evening.
With both teams knowing that defeat would be fatal to their chances of progression there was a danger of it being a tense, nervy, unentertaining affair. It was none of those things! From kickoff to the final whistle, Ulster played with such ferocity that Leicester looked simply stunned and it was no surprise whatsoever when Andrew Trimble crossed for the opening try after 5 minutes. The Tigers to their credit rallied from the early onslaught and ran in a try off their own through Geordan Murphy to cling onto the Ulster coat tails in the opening quarter, but in reality, they were not even close! When Trimble got his second try just before the break, Ulster were so much on top that I don’t believe even the most fervent Tigers fans could believe that they might come back.
The second half was no different, Ulster dominating the physical confrontations, so much so that at one point their centre Paddy Wallace picked up Tigers and England flanker Tom Croft and drove him over the touchline. The only question was whether Ulster would get the tries to secure the bonus point. By the time the crucial fourth try arrived, courtesy of reserve scrum half Paul Marshall, it had already ceased to be a question, such was the dominance of Ulster and the inevitability of it all.
What was billed as potentially the game of the round, ended being a one sided affair, not because Leicester are a poor side, but simply because Ulster were irresistible. It was one of those performances where I have to say that whoever they had been playing, they would have won. But here lies both the beauty and despair of the Heineken Cup. Ulster, despite now having won 4 out of 5 in the pool, and having put in arguably the best performance of this years competition, are not yet assured of a place in the quarter finals. To qualify, they must travel to France and come back with at very least a losing bonus point, which will see fans reaching for their abacuses depending on results in other pools, or alternatively, put in another gargantuan performance and succeed where so many have failed before, and beat ASM Clermont Auvergne in their own back yard.
For what it’s worth, I can see them getting at least a losing bonus point and realistically both Ulster and ASM could qualify from this pool. But who else will join them?
As stated earlier Munster are there from Pool One, and with the Scarlets losing to a resurgent Northampton Saints in round 5, the best runner up will not come from that pool.
In Pool Two, a late Phil Godman drop goal in Paris ensured that Edinburgh remain level on 17 points at the top of the pool with Cardiff Blues. They both face home games in round 6 against teams with nothing to play for but pride, and the smart money will be on them both winning and a best runner up coming from this pool.
Pool Three see Leinster already qualified, and knowing that a bonus point win at home to Montpellier this weekend will guarantee them top seeding and a home quarter final. The rest do not have enough points to claim a best runners up spot, rendering Bath vs. Glasgow a dead rubber this week.
Pool Four is where ASM Clermont Auvergne and Ulster currently reside, with the winner of their clash guaranteed a quarter final spot, and Ulster still in with a shout even in defeat.
Pool Five appears to be Saracens to lose, with them only needing a losing bonus point away at bottom club Bennetton Treviso to secure qualification. They could even come back with nothing and qualify, with Biarritz needing to secure a try bonus point win just to get level with the Aviva Premiership champions.
Pool Six is still a 2 horse race, with leaders Toulouse going to Kingsholm to face Gloucester, and second placed Harlequins travelling to Galway to face Connacht. Quins will be hoping for a favour from their English rivals, as even a win in Ireland may not be enough to qualify, depending on results in other pools should Toulouse win and top this one.
So in summary we have 2 teams through, and 8 teams competing for the remaining 6 places. Fans of those sides will be on a knife edge over the weekend, doing the maths to work out what their team needs, whilst those of us whose teams are already out, will fall back on their heritage, and drink homage to their maternal grandmother from Enniskillen. The Ulster bandwagon is rolling, and those who believe will be checking hotel prices for Twickenham in May. One hurdle at a time whoever you support though, and here’s hoping for another fantastic weekend of Heineken Cup action.