English clubs march on Europe

Complicated format of rugby union's Heineken Cup ensures a thrilling climax to this weekend's final round-robin matches
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The Independent Online

Calculate the hyperbolic function of the variable of the logarithm of the cosine, multiply by the number you first thought of and divide by seven to the power of 10. The result, apart from a nervous breakdown? An English resurgence in Europe, funnily enough. Just as the Celtic hordes were preparing to celebrate the public demise of the red rose brigade, no fewer than eight Premiership clubs - Leicester, Gloucester, Saracens, Bath, Newcastle, Harlequins, London Irish and little old Rotherham - are alive and kicking in the Continental arena.

Calculate the hyperbolic function of the variable of the logarithm of the cosine, multiply by the number you first thought of and divide by seven to the power of 10. The result, apart from a nervous breakdown? An English resurgence in Europe, funnily enough. Just as the Celtic hordes were preparing to celebrate the public demise of the red rose brigade, no fewer than eight Premiership clubs - Leicester, Gloucester, Saracens, Bath, Newcastle, Harlequins, London Irish and little old Rotherham - are alive and kicking in the Continental arena.

Some of them are kicking harder than others, admittedly, but the state of the nation is a whole lot healthier than the buoyant Welsh and breezy Irish had assumed before last weekend's Heineken Cup and European Shield business. England should claim two quarter-final places in the élite competition; Leicester are already there - if they beat the less than threatening Glasgow Caledonians at Welford Road on Saturday, they should guarantee themselves a home draw - and Gloucester will join them in the knock-out phase if they get it right in Rome. (Until very recently, the Cherry and Whites would have struggled to survive a trip to Cheltenham, but they have brushed up their away act under Philippe Saint-André.) Saracens are far more exposed, thanks to their double misfire against Cardiff during the autumn, but Sunday's four-try victory over Toulouse has given them a sniff, at least. They must win at Ravenhill on Friday night - no easy matter in front of a 14,000 Belfast crowd hell-bent on giving Harry Williams a suitable send-off in his last match as Ulster coach - and increase their try count by as many as is humanly possible. They must also hope and pray that Llanelli beat the ever-dangerous Colomiers at Stradey Park on the same evening, while scoring rather fewer tries.

Bath, who meet the also-rans from Newport at the Recreation Ground the following afternoon, have a similar interest in the above scenario. Their try famine before Christmas has cost them a packet; despite the five they put past Castres in France last weekend, they are still seven adrift of Saracens and six behind Llanelli. However, that gap is mere red rag to a bull. The West Countrymen can scarcely be expected to record a double-figure try count against serious Welsh opposition, but the way their back-line is performing right now, it will be fun watching them attempt the improbable.

All this will be academic if Colomiers win in West Wales and Gloucester see off the Italians of Roma, for both would then join Stade Français, Swansea, Munster, Cardiff, Leicester and one of Biarritz and Leinster in the quarter-finals. That last pairing meet in a winner-takes-all rumble at Parc des Sports Aguilera on Saturday, and as the Irishmen have never won a Heineken Cup match in France, the momentum is with Jean-Michel Gonzalez and his friends.

Complicated? Yes, mind-bendingly so. But the qualifying mechanism thrown up by the six groups of four format - pool winners plus the two best runners-up into the last eight, with close calls decided on try count - has produced a marvellous climax to the round-robin phase for the second successive season.

As things stand now, 10 of this weekend's 12 ties are live and no side has yet earned a home draw in the quarters. If, for example, Swansea click against Stade Français in Paris on Saturday afternoon, the entire tournament will be deflected from its presumed course.

The Shield is a simpler affair, with the eight group winners progressing.

Four French clubs - Beziers, Agen, Mont-de-Marsan and Narbonne - are done and dusted already, and the cross-border trailblazers from Brive will go through at the expense of London Irish if they beat Aurillac on home soil.

But Newcastle and Harlequins are also in the pound seats, thanks to their respective victories over Treviso and Perigueux at the weekend. Rotherham, meanwhile, must prevail over Perpignan at Clifton Lane on Sunday - or, more riskily, protect their slender try-count advantage in defeat. If they manage it, the Theakston's will flow like a river. Even Yorkshiremen enjoy a touch of Europe, provided they're winning.

* Llanelli are offering free entry for their final Heineken Cup Pool Five match against Colomiers at Stradey Park on Friday. Admission will be on a first-come, first-served basis. "It's important we do everything possible to help the team and that is why we want to make the fixture as attractive as we can to the fans," Stuart Gallacher, the Llanelli chief executive, said.

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