Quarter-final picture becomes a lot clearer
January 15, 2007
While the Heineken Cup seeding system means the quarter-final pairings are not fixed until the final whistle of the last match in the pool stage, round five finished with a pretty clear idea of most of the names who will still be involved at that stage. Huw Richards reports
We have four certainties - among whom Biarritz are all butready sure of a home quarter-final, good news for those who have come to cherish their annual trip across the Spanish border to San Sebastian.
Munster, Leinster and Llanelli may well take the other three home seedings, but still have work to do on the final weekend. It would take a miracle to eliminate Stade Francais, while Wasps are also tantalisingly close.
If qualification is one aspect of clarification, the other is elimination - and there was plenty of that as well. Aside from the six listed above, there are only five other candidates for qualification - Castres, Ospreys, Sale, Northampton and Leicester. England as yet has no definite qualifier, but may very well end up with three.
Biarritz's 45-3 demolition of Parma was perhaps the most predictable result of the weekend, with the French champions retaining their 100 per cent record with 25 points from five matches. That outcome might reasonably have been expected when the draw was made and Biarritz given perhaps the weakest group in Heineken history.
You could, though, have got extremely good odds against the next qualifiers, also with five straight wins although a couple of bonus points fewer, Llanelli. Even after their spectacular win at Toulouse there were no guarantees of a Scarlets win away to Ulster, perennially powerful at Ravenhill and still with their own outside hopes of qualification, least of all by the margin of 35-11, Alix Popham launching a five-try win in foul conditions.
A couple of hours later came Leinster, with a 49-10 stomping of Edinburgh including a hat-trick of Shane Horgan, while Munster completed the Irish qualification on Sunday, although made heavy weather of it with a 30-27 victory against previously pointless Bourgoin - who opened their account with a losing and a try bonus - in Geneva.
Leinster and Llanelli have already clinched their groups. Biarritz can theoretically be caught by Northampton, who kept up their pursuit with a four-try 29-19 away to Scottish Borders at a deserted Murrayfield, Ben Cohen claiming two tries. But they'll need a bonus point win while denying Biarritz any bonuses and outscoring them by at least three tries to displace them from top place.
Leicester too retained their ambitions with a 34-0, six-try, hammering of Cardiff, sadly reverting to type after looking greatly improved in the earlier rounds. Three tries in the first ten minutes settled the match almost before it started, but the Tigers still probably need to bring off the toughest feat in European rugby - a win in Limerick - to go through.
Wasps' victory over Perpignan featured perhaps the most alarming sight of the weekend - Phil Vickery crashing to the ground, apparently badly injured.
Happily he was soon back on his feet and, opposing number Perry Freshwater rather ruefully conceded - back to something like his best in the scrummages as Wasps contained USAP's immense physical threat in a contest longer on concussion than charm, settled by an opportunist charge-down try by immensely promising centre Dominic Waldouck, still only 19. Perpignan go out while Wasps go to Castres, who kept their hopes alive by flattening Treviso 40-21 in Italy, with a four-point advantage.
If you want last-gasp action in the Heineken, Liberty Stadium is the place.
But where the extraordinary score to beat Sale in round one brought exultation to the home crowd, this time there was deflation and despair as Lionel Beauxis landed a penalty from half-way for the draw that takes Stade into the quarter-finals, barring an extraordinary collapse next week at home to Calvisano.
Stade had been well worth their 19-6 threequarter-time lead - the hugely impressive Juan Manuel Hernandez scoring their try while David Skrela and Beauxis landed the kicks. Ospreys, though, dragged themselves back - imposing the pressure that led to a yellow card for lock Boela du Plooy then claiming 13 points during his 10 minute absence as Ryan Jones began to make hard yards and create space for the likes of James Hook, who scored 17 points, and Shane Williams.
Hook's penalty took them into a 22-19 lead in the 74th minute, but Stade stirred themselves to squeeze out the draw when Jones handled in a 84th minute ruck.
There was still time for Gavin Henson to attempt a drop from halfway but, in keeping with his year, it fell a little wide and short. Ospreys can still progress if they win at Sale, but will find the English champions in determined shape, still cherishing ambitions of their own after winning 29-11 at Calvisano.
Agen beat Gloucester 26-18 on Friday with Rupeni Caucaunibuca in sensational form while Toulouse won 26-24 at London Irish in spite of a hat-trick from Deion Armitage for the Exiles. It availed neither, as Northampton and Leicester's victories ended even theoretical hopes of squeezing into the best runners-up places.
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