Harlequins’ away win in Toulouse proves yet again what a great tournament the HEC is and puts in place some interesting pool arithmetic, with one of the Irish provinces centrally involved in the unfolding tale in Pool 6.
Toulouse’s eleven point win in London denied ‘Quins a bonus point and means that, should the teams finish level on points, Toulouse will finish first. There’s a few matches to be played yet though and two of them involve Connacht who must travel to la ville rose to face a chastened Toulouse. Harlequins welcome Gloucester to Twickenham in what is sure to be a money spinner for the club but the Mole doubts the wisdom of foregoing the familiarity of home field advantage during the pool stages. Nonetheless, form suggests that they will win which means they must travel to the Sportsground, which is a long way from Twickenham, looking to ensure qualification. Meanwhile, Toulouse go to Kingsholm, in what looks like a straightforward game on paper. Kingsholm isn’t as ferocious a challenge as in days past but Gloucester will not roll over. It looks at this stage that Toulouse will qualify with 22 points with Harlequins on their heels.
Pool 4 contains some heavyweight contenders and some lively matches. Ulster host Leicester in Ravenhill on a January weekend, having been denied the bonus point in Welford Road. Ulster are extremely difficult to beat in Ravenhill and Leicester are the only English team with the muscle memory and Mental to be able to do it. Clermont will expect no less than a bonus point win against Aironi. Wins for Ulster and Clermont sets up a last round clash in the Massif Central, where the star laden Michelin team are nearly impossible to beat. Clermont to qualify but they will have to travel.
Saracens gained a great win against the Ospreys and next host Biarritz who lie near the bottom of the Top 14 but who possess some top quality players. This isn’t a done deal for Sarries who don’t have the European pedigree of the Basque club. Harinorduquy and co are capable of producing big performances and Saracens must then travel to Treviso, who are very difficult to beat at home. The table suggests that Saracens will win both and earn a home quarter but a loss to Biarritz means they’ll probably miss out while a loss in Treviso would see them on the road.
Edinburgh and Cardiff each have one road trip and one home game against London Irish and Racing. Qualification from this pool may well decide on Racing’s fixture list and level of interest. Edinburgh travel to Paris in the next round while Cardiff go to London. Edinburgh’s trip looks more appealing as London Irish have an outside chance of qualification should results go their way. Either way, at least one Rabo team should qualify from this group.
Finally, Leinster and Munster seem set to top the qualification phase and earn home quarter finals. The Irish clubs have gone about things in a different manner but find themselves in enviable positions. There’s a few keys to the Heineken Cup: playing at home in the knockouts is one; avoiding a trip to Dublin, Limerick, Toulouse or Clermont is another.
At this stage the Mole thinks that Bloodgate 2 could be hosted at the Aviva while Munster may yet meet Llanelli for a third time. Toulouse and Clermont could lock horns down in Toulouse with Saracens getting what looks like the tie of the round against Edinburgh. There’s a lot to go before that – what an antidote to the January Blues!