With four of six group games played in this season’s Heineken Cup, Richard Browne looks at how the teams are placed as the fight for qualification intensifies. Remember, the six pool winners and the two best runners-up make it into the quarter finals.
Saracens were the big winners in this pool, grinding out a 19-13 win over Munster. Owen Farrell was the difference, his 14 points consigning the Irish province to defeat and lifting his side to top of Pool 1.
Two points behind Saracens are the French side Racing Metro 92, who piled more misery on pointless Edinburgh by winning 15-3 at Murrayfield. In a game without tries (yes, that’s zero in four games for the Scots), penalties from Olly Barkley and Gaetan Germain saw Racing pick up the four points.
Saracens travel to Paris for their next match in the competition, while Munster are away to Edinburgh, who have nothing left to play for except pride. This one looks like going down to the wire.
Multiple Heineken Cup winners Leicester and Toulouse look to be in control of Pool 2, although Welsh side the Ospreys are still in with a chance. That’s due to their 17-6 win over Toulouse, with a try from wing Eli Walker and 12 points from Dan Biggar’s boot, which puts them four points behind the French outfit.
Leicester are now top by a point, although they had an almighty scare away to Treviso. The Italians may have lost all four of their games, but their form in the RaboDirect Pro12 shows them to be a decent side. Only a late rally – a penalty try and George Ford’s conversion – prevented Leicester losing to an Italian team for the first time in 17 matches.
Toulouse, you would think, will pick up four or five at home to Treviso, increasing the pressure on Leicester and the Ospreys, who meet at the Liberty Stadium. Another close group seems likely.
Harlequins continue their stroll towards the quarters, sitting pretty on four wins and 19 points. The latest win was a 53-5 crushing of Zebre, which featured six tries for the English team. Zebre, who are poor even for an Italian side (says a Scot…), are – unsurprisingly – without any victories or points so far.
The race for what looks to be the consolation prize of a distant second place is between Biarritz and Connacht. It was the French side who won their latest meeting, by a comfortable margin of 17-0, to leapfrog the Irish into second spot on nine points.
Harlequins have all but won the group, and can confirm it by avoiding defeat at home to Connacht. Biarritz will keep their faint hopes of qualification alive with a win at Zebre.
The unbeaten run is at an end. After 13 consecutive wins, Ulster finally succumbed to Northampton in Belfast. The English side gained revenge for last week’s 25-6 beating by the Irish province thanks to GJ van Velze’s try, although Ulster’s many, many handling errors were also crucial in their 10-9 defeat.
The worst news for the Ulstermen – and Ireland – was the serious-looking knee injury sustained by Tommy Bowe. Ulster and Ireland have more wing options, but Andrew Trimble is not in Bowe’s class and Craig Gilroy is still a work in progress, albeit a very exciting one.
That result played into the hands of Castres, who were 10-8 victors against Glasgow. Like Edinburgh, Glasgow have lost all four of their games, even if they have managed to score two losing bonus points. Castres, though, are now only three points behind the previously unstoppable Ulster.
Ulster host Glasgow for their next pool game, and should be confident of getting back on track. Northampton play Castres at Franklin’s Gardens, meanwhile, which you would think would decide which of the two sides will challenge Ulster for top spot.
Clermont Auvergne are looking every piece champions in the making. A try from Wesley Fofana and 23 points from Morgan Parra kicks saw the French side overpower Leinster in Dublin 28-21. Four defeats for the Irish provinces this weekend: grim reading for Declan Kidney. Leinster, who are the defending champions of course, have fallen eight points behind Clermont having lost both fixtures against them.
Exeter moved one point behind Leinster by beating the Scarlets 30-20, outscoring their Welsh opponents by three tries to two.
Clermont can guarantee top spot with a win in their next match against Exeter, while Leinster really have to win both of their next two games – starting with a home tie against the Scarlets – and possibly pick up a bonus point or two to give themselves hope of progressing.
The demolition of the weekend came from Toulon, who ran in nine tries as they blitzed Sale 62-0. The French side have an astonishing squad, which features top names from Argentina, Australia, England, New Zealand, Samoa, South Africa and Wales, as well as a host of French internationals. Those names can play a bit as well on this evidence, Frederic Michalak – selected ahead of Jonny Wilkinson this time – running the show against a hapless Sale team.
Montpellier are the only real competition for Toulon, this weekend beating Cardiff 34-21, to stay five points behind the pool pacesetters and leave Cardiff bottom of the group with just one miserable point.
Toulon will win this group by avoiding an upset at home to Cardiff, while Sale will look to regain some dignity when they host Montpellier.
The next round of pool matches takes place on the weekend of 11/12/13 January.