It is about as clear as mud, which is as it should be. As this season's round-robin stage shifts past its mid-point, it would be easier to calculate the long-term benefits of organic carrot consumption than to identify the likely quarter-finalists.
It is about as clear as mud, which is as it should be. The Heineken Cup pool stage is all things to all men, including those peculiar folk who measure their rugby by logarithms rather than by tries scored or by punches thrown, and as this season's round-robin stage shifts past its mid-point, it would be easier to calculate the long-term benefits of organic carrot consumption than to identify the likely quarter-finalists. Leinster will certainly be one of them, and Toulouse should make it through as usual. Beyond those two, it is anyone's guess.
Warren Gatland, who coaches the reigning champions, Wasps, is as aware as anyone of the possibilities inherent in the six-group format. A cold slice of revenge against Leicester at Welford Road tomorrow - a sold-out Welford Road, where tickets have been as rare as radium since last weekend's major-league extravaganza at High Wycombe - will put the Londoners, who still head the Pool One rankings, in the pound seats for qualification.
"I have no complaints about the result last weekend - if you concede three tries in the first 20 minutes, you don't deserve to win," Gatland said yesterday. "The important thing is that we start well this time. If we lose, we'll be struggling; in fact, we'll find ourselves reassessing our goals for the season. But I was pleased with the character we showed to get back into last Sunday's game, which was as close to international rugby as club rugby gets, and I thought our conditioning was good.
"And besides, we lost at home this time last year to the Celtic Warriors and ended up winning the title. I think Leicester and ourselves are pretty evenly matched, and we don't want to give the trophy away. If we go down, we'll go down fighting."
There are any number of glorious dimensions to tomorrow's match, including the latest strop-fuelled meeting between those former England captains of repute, Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, and the bristling generational rivalry between Matt Dawson, a Test scrum-half of the old school, and young Harry Ellis, whose future, unlike Dawson's, is very much ahead of him. Yet the business of qualifying will not end here. Biarritz, those increasingly influential power-brokers of the French game, have made a habit of sneaking into the knock-out round via the blind side, and assuming they lay waste to Calvisano in Italy this afternoon, their chances of winning the group will be as good as anyone's.
The groups featuring Newcastle and Gloucester are every bit as tight, although the latter will be in serious strife if they fail to follow up last Saturday's narrow victory over Cardiff Blues at Kingsholm by delivering something similar in the Welsh capital. The Blues have had a rotten time of it this season, frequently appearing far more clueless than any club of such grand tradition and such obvious spending power has any right to be. But their Heineken Cup performances on the road have been rather better than their results indicate, and if they can harness something of the old Arms Park spirit, they could easily end the injury-plagued English team's realistic interest in the competition.
Newcastle, on the other hand, are in good shape all round, with their runners prospering behind a hard-working pack and Jonny Wilkinson back on active duty. They were shoved around by the Edinburgh forwards a week ago, and will probably find themselves on the spiky end of the pineapple at Murrayfield in this evening's rematch, but as every coach under the sun likes to say: winning is a habit. However, they have yet to shake off the most resourceful of the Welsh teams, the Newport-Gwent Dragons. If the pool is still an argument by the end of today, the last two rounds of matches will set the pulses racing.
For their sins, the Dragons play in Perpignan tonight, and while a visit to the Catalonian corner of Planet Rugby has nothing whatsoever in common with a church lunch on the vicarage lawn, the consecutive defeats suffered by the Frenchmen in this competition may just have dampened their spirits enough to give the Dragons the glimmer of a chance.Reuse content