The last time England provided fewer than two Heineken Cup quarter-finalists was more than a decade ago, in the 1998-99 season. There was a good reason for this: the English boycotted the tournament. Generally speaking, the Premiership holds up its end in Europe by sending a couple of clubs through to the knock-out stage as pool winners and sliding a third into the last eight as one of the best runners-up. Much to the unbridled glee of the Celts and the French, it may not happen this year.
Bath, Gloucester and Harlequins were toast by the end of the penultimate round of group matches, Sale were left clutching at mathematical straws of the flimsiest possible variety and Northampton found themselves fighting for their lives in the less than sympathetic surroundings of Thomond Park in Limerick last night. With Leicester having to win at Ospreys this lunchtime to keep themselves alive and London Irish needing to thump the reigning champions from Leinster this evening just to stand an earthly chance, the odds on a worst-ever English performance in the world's leading club competition were, and are, unnervingly short.
From the London Irish point of view, the situation borders on the ridiculous. Twice during this pool phase, they played a Scarlets side so eminently beatable that there seemed next to no likelihood of anything going wrong. Twice, they messed it up. What is more, tonight's game will be played at a half-full Twickenham rather than a packed Madejski Stadium, thanks to Reading FC's first call on their own venue. Leinster, full to overflowing with top-class international players and scarcely in need of a generous intervention from Lady Luck, must be struggling not to laugh.
"It's a truly monumental task, a massive challenge," admitted the Exiles scrum-half Paul Hodgson, one of the more astute readers of the union game. "Last week's defeat at Scarlets was one of the most gutting feelings we've had as a side for a long time. We were in control, but we let it slip away. There were some home truths spoken in the changing room afterwards, so I hope it will spark a reaction and help us turn in a performance at Twickenham. But Leinster are formidable and they'll be coming to win. We're under no illusions as to how difficult this will be."
While the Exiles beat Leinster in a try-less encounter in Dublin last October, the demands this time are far greater. If they are to win the group, they must prevent opponents equipped with a genuinely scary back division – Test Lions in Rob Kearney and Brian O'Driscoll, a Fijian international in Isa Nacewa, a new-generation Irish gem in Johnny Sexton – finishing within seven points of them while scoring four tries of their own. If they lose, they are out.
To this end, they have summoned some firepower on the wings in the shape of Sailosi Tagicakibau, the Samoan who has not played for some weeks, and Topsy Ojo, who has barely be seen since last April. Yet they have plumped for Chris Malone at outside-half ahead of the more extravagantly gifted Ryan Lamb. Strange.
Leicester have at least been able to prepare in the knowledge that any kind of win at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea will see them through in some way, shape or form. Not that they are anticipating a gentle day trip to the furthest-flung reaches of the M4. They have a fair bit of history with Ospreys, the glitterati region of Welsh rugby with their local heroes and their big-money imports, and it will not have escaped the notice of Richard Cockerill, the Midlanders' head coach, that players as threatening as James Hook and Shane Williams have suddenly reappeared on their hosts' team sheet.
Still, the Leicester pack is quite something at the moment. Intriguingly, Cockerill is sticking with the much talked-about Dan Cole at tight-head prop, ahead of the infinitely more experienced Martin Castrogiovanni and Julian White. The Italian starts on the bench; the Englishman stays at home. Cole and White are currently the other way round in the national pecking order, but that may change soon.Reuse content