The second last day in golf’s major championships is generally referred to as ‘moving day’ and the same could be said of the second last weekend of the Heineken Cup. 15 of the 24 teams still have reasonable chances to win their groups (and only 5 are mathematically out of contention with two rounds to go). There are three huge, winner-takes-all games but almost all of the 12 games have something riding on them.
Ulster v Biarritz
The first huge game is the Ulster v Biarritz clash tomorrow at 3:30 in Ravenhill. It’s a long time since the Northern province have challenged for a quarter final place but their back to back wins over Bath and Biarritz’s bizarre defeat against Aironi have set up this game where the winner will almost certainly win the group and probably get a home quarter final. Ulster would still have to beat Aironi in their last game but that would surely be a formality.
This week’s game is very hard to call. Ulster have a superb home record in the Heineken Cup with December’s win over Bath their seventh home win in a row in the competition and Biarritz have been brittle away from home losing in Gloucester (twice) and Cardiff in recent years. On paper, Biarritz have a much stronger squad and they beat Ulster comfortably in France earlier in the competition but a traditional wet and horrible night in Belfast may not be the sort of place that they want to showcase their talents. Ulster will need to defend much better than in recent losses against Leinster and Munster and kick every penalty chance that they get but they can win this.
Llanelli Scarlets v Leicester Tigers
Next up are the Llanelli Scarlets and Leicester at 5:30 on Saturday in another massive game that has slipped under the radar somewhat here in Ireland. Leicester must win or they’re out of the Heineken Cup and Llanelli and Perpignan (assuming they beat Treviso earlier in the day) would face each other to decide the group next week. A win tomorrow, on the other hand, would leave the Tigers needing just to put away Treviso at home to qualify (as a best second place team at least) with Llanelli needing a big win in Perpignan on the final weekend to have a chance of qualifying.
Two bonus-point wins over Treviso have put the Scarlets top of the group but it looks like something of a false position. Their Magners League form has been good, apart from being on the wrong end of a thumping from the Ospreys in Swansea, and they’re second in the league playing attractive rugby but Leicester are top of the English Premiership and their forward bulk could be difference in this game.
Toulon v Munster
Arguably the biggest game of the weekend is on Sunday in Toulon where the nouveau riche home team face European nobility in Munster with the latter desperate for a win. A Toulon win would as good as knock Munster out (there are some permutations where they could get through with just a losing bonus point but it would take their Heineken Cup miracles to a whole new level) and probably set up another huge game between Toulon and the Ospreys next week. Similar to Leicester, a Munster win would leave qualification in their hands at home to London Irish in the final game where no one would bet against them doing what they need to.
Munster will need a level of performance that’s several steps ahead of what they’ve managed recently. Toulon will put everything they have into the scrums after watching Munster’s struggles in that area against the Ospreys in the last two rounds. It’s harder to call their tactics behind that as they can cut loose as shown when scoring 5 tries against London Irish with Felipe Contepomi pulling the strings at out half but they can also go for a grinding game as against Racing Metro recently. They did little in that game but kick penalties and set up Jonny Wilkinson for drop goals. Both Wilkinson and Contepomi will likely start this match but with the pressure of the home crowd on them, I fear they’ll go for the more boring style which may be easier for Munster to stymie. If the opposition were anyone other than Munster, you’d chalk this game up as a home win on recent form but betting on Munster to go out in the group stage has been a very good way of losing money over the years and it really is too close to call.
The other pools don’t have the same do-or-die match ups but there should still be plenty of good rugby. Leinster are big favourites to beat Saracens in the RDS tomorrow afternoon to wrap up pool 2. Jamie Heaslip is out but Leinster should still be able to win and go into the last weekend with a home quarter final in their sights. Northampton are in a similar situation; needing only a win at home to Edinburgh tonight to win pool 1 barring a freak set of other results in the pool. This weekend in pool 6 is pretty predictable as Toulouse and Wasps should have little difficulty disposing of the Dragons and Glasgow in their games tomorrow and on Sunday. Next week should more than make up for the lack of drama this week though as Toulouse will travel to Wasps for a winner-takes-all game to decide the group. Even though there’s an excellent chance that the losers will still qualify as a best second place team, this should be one of the games of the final set of fixtures.
So settle in on the couch or at the bar, it should be a great weekend.