Crunch time in race for knock out stages
January 18, 2010
Can London Irish fullback Delon Armitage and his team-mates haul themselves off the deck and secure a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals? © Getty Images
It's make or break time in the Heineken Cup this week with the battle for this year's quarter-finals set to reach a crescendo across the continent.
With five rounds of pool action completed, only two sides - Top 14 giants Toulouse and Biarritz - have secured passage through to the last eight. Although mathematically unlikely for some, there are still numerous contenders for the remaining six spots with prayers set to be answered and hopes extinguished in the destiny-defining clashes throughout what is traditionally the most dramatic few days of the northern hemisphere season.
But who will produce what it takes to ensre a return to the fiercest and most entertaining of battle grounds in April? Who will clinch the other four pools? Who will be the lucky losers that join them? And which clubs will be granted a European lifeline with a place in the second tier Challenge Cup quarter-finals?
France look well placed to bolster their hopes of a home win at this season's finale at the Stade de France in Paris on May 22. Clermont Auvergne currently lie third in the ultra-competitive Pool 3 but with top spot still in the balance they will welcome the trip to Stadio Luigi Zaffanella to tackle Viadana. They will be odds-on favourites to heap woe on the Super 10 side having put five tries past them in October and a similar result would see them progress as pool winners. Only a bonus point win for the Tigers against the Ospreys in Swansea could deny their French rivals as a four-point hail would see Les Jaunards take the pool due to their head-to-head results. However a victory, for either Leicester or the Ospreys should see them extend their Heineken Cup lifeline post-Six Nations as one of the best runners-up. Sadly, the side that comes off worst in this mini battle will not even have the prospect of a Challenge Cup place awaiting them.
Stade Francais could take France's contingent to four if they escape from their final Pool 4 clash with Edinburgh with no worse than a draw. That would be enough to end Ulster's hopes of claiming the pool no matter their result at Bath. But if the Irish province claim a bonus point win and Stade come away empty-handed then Ulster could return to the quarter-finals for the first time since the famous 1998-99 season when they claimed the European crown.
In contrast to the formidable French challenge, their Premiership counterparts from across The Channel have struggled to maintain or even muster a challenge and as a result England are in danger of not providing a quarter-finalist for the first time in the competition's history. The Premiership provided seven sides for this season's battle for European supremacy but those not already discounted need a Herculean effort and fair amount of luck to progress.
Current Premiership leaders Leicester have the afore mentioned lifeline while their East Midlands rivals Northampton must dent Munster's title hopes if they are to return to the last eight. The Saints' five-try romp against Perpignan - their 10th win in a row in all competitions - will have galvanised their Pool 1 challenge but a five-day turnaround for their trip to the imposing Thomond Park will draw heavily on their reserves. An unlikely victory for Northampton - Munster having lost one home Heineken Cup clash - will underline the Saints' title credentials and give them the pool title but Munster would be well-placed to take one of the best runners-up spots.
Should Munster extend their impressive home record on Friday night then they would guarantee their provincial rivals Leinster a place in the quarter-finals as one of the best runners-up even before they went head-to-head with Pool 6 rivals London Irish at Twickenham on Saturday. The defending champions shook off the rust with a hard-fought bonus-point win against Brive with that was capped by that man again - Brian O'Driscoll - who pounced in the final minute to bag the all-important bonus. As a result Leinster are in pole position in Pool 6 after the Exiles capitulated at the hands of Scarlets. That slip means the Premiership side must secure a bonus point win at Twickenham and deny Leinster any return to snatch away the pool title. Irish know a victory may also book them a place in the last eight but the Scarlets are still in the equation ahead of their clash with Brive.
Elsewhere, Premiership side Sale and Magners League rivals Cardiff Blues need a miracle to progress alongside Toulouse from Pool 5 and Gloucester appear to have left their Pool 2 revival a little too late with both more likely to grace the Challenge Cup quarter-finals. Although immediately galling, the pain of exiting the Heineken Cup at the first hurdle will be eased for three teams with a second shot at European glory in the Challenge Cup where victory could ensure a swift return to the premier event.
The Heineken Cup rarely fails to deliver in terms of drama and excitement and this past weekend was no exception with twists and turns aplenty and last-gasp scores strengthening the tournament's claim to be the best advert for the club game in the world. The great news is that we're in for more of the same this weekend as the quarter-final picture is completed in both European competitions.
Quarter-finals qualification if teams are equal:
Clubs in the same Pool
(i) the Pool winner will be the Club with the highest number of match points earned in
each Pool. The runners-up will be the two second placed Clubs from all six Pools with
the next highest number of points. For the quarter-final round, the Pool winners will
be ranked 1 - 6 in terms of the number of points earned. The runners-up will be
ranked 7 and 8.
Clubs from different Pools (if still unresolved)
Teams ranked 1 - 4 will have home advantage. The Quarter-Finals will be: Team 1 v Team 8; Team 2 v Team 7; Team 3 v Team 6; Team 4 v Team 5
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