So we go into the next round of the Heineken Cup still not sure of the future of the competition.
There have been some announcements and I will be posting a summary of the latest positions (or lack of them) sometime next week – when hopefully things will be a bit clearer for the 2014/5 season. At the moment it looks like there will be a competition but without any of the English clubs!
Anyway, back to this week’s games. The next two weeks should indicate who is most likely to qualify for the knockout stages and I’ll look now at each group to assess who needs to do what to give themselves the best chance.
Rounds 3 and 4 over the next two weeks are reverse fixtures with each team playing the same opponents home and away.
In Pool 1 it is Leinster who have the upper hand with 2 wins out of 2. Second placed Saints slipped up away to Castres courtesy of an intercepted pass by the French champions.
To have any chance of getting through this tough group Northampton need to get all four points from the visit of Leinster to Franklins Gardens. I think they will manage to win but they will face a tough battle the following weekend in Ireland and will need a minimum of a bonus point and preferably more.
Meanwhile bottom club Ospreys, yet to pick up a point, will find the going tough at Castres. If they do get an unlikely win it will open up the group again but will favour whoever triumphs in the other Pool game.
Pool 2 sees all four sides separated by just one point so it is all to play for and all to lose!
The Chiefs welcome (?) Champions Toulon to Sandy Park and it will be no easy ride for the French side. The Chiefs have looked on top form in the Premiership whilst Toulon have had some indifferent performances – including last week’s reverse 23 – 0 to Stade Francais. They will be particularly concerned that their scrum was in great difficulty – the Chiefs have a formidable pack. I think the Chiefs will pile the pressure on and will head the table on Saturday night.
The other game sees Glasgow Warriors at Cardiff Blues – where I take a close game to go to the home side – but only just as Glasgow have shown resilience on the road so far this season
In Pool 3 Saracens will need to pick up maximum points against Zebre in Italy and hope that Toulouse can stop Connacht getting anything when they travel to France.
Losing at home to Toulouse has made it imperative that Saracens do not fail against either of the other teams and get something when they go to France later in the tournament. I think both results will go Saracens way this weekend and next and give them a decent chance at getting through to the quarter finals in April next year. – probably as one of the best runners up.
Pool 4 sees Harlequins struggling with just two bonus points for their efforts – they face Racing away on Saturday before hosting them at the Stoop the next weekend. If they can get wins in both they just might upset the group. It is a big ask but they are playing well after a shaky start to the season and with Nick Easter and Danny Care on fire and the return of Chris Robshaw they can harbour a small hope.
The Scarlets have been the surprise package of Pool 4 but will struggle to overcome Clermont at the Stade Marcel-Michelin. It could be that the group is thrown wide open, but I fancy it to be topped by the two French sides when the dust settles.
Pool 5 has Ulster ruling the roost – and they will pick up another hatful of points over the next two weeks thanks to certain home and away wins over Benneton Treviso.
Like Harlequins in Pool 4, Leicester will also need two victories to give them any chance for April fixtures in this competition – but again it is a tough task to beat Montpellier home and away on successive weekends – I think they’ll get one but will do well to get a bonus from their visit to France on Sunday week. From there on it will be tough to qualify.
Finally in Pool 6 Gloucester have a chance of moving into second place if they can knock off Edinburgh in the Scottish capital. They have shown signs of improving but it has been patchy – if their exciting backs can get enough ball they may well pull it off.
Meanwhile Perpignan and Munster will spend the next two weeks knocking lumps out of each other and will end up splitting the points – both matches going to the home side.
This time next week we will see just how important the reverse fixtures are for each side and no doubt scoffing at many of my predictions.
Still – you’ve got to be in it to win it – and next year it looks like the English Premiership clubs won’t be!