Home thoughts keep the fires burning

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The Independent Online

The Celtic League final between Leinster and Munster at Lansdowne Road a couple of weeks ago was one of the best games I saw in 2001 and should have set up both sides to charge confidently in the Heineken Cup next weekend.

But as rampant as the Irish are – and let's not forget Ulster are also still there as a force – they are now dealing with a competition that demands more than any other club tournament in the world. The battles that will be taking place in the final matches of the group stage over the next two weekends are not just about winning your group but being one of the four sides to play at home in the quarter-finals. This is such a massive advantage it almost decides who is going to play in the semis.

There are six groups and the winners of each group plus the best two runners-up go forward. So you can win your group and still have to play away in the quarters.

At the moment Leinster appear to be in a strong position at the top of Group Six where they are four points ahead of Newport, in second place. But Leinster have to visit Newcastle Falcons on Saturday and Toulouse the following Saturday.

With their well-balanced side and a razor-sharp three-quarter line they are well capable of winning both – but they'll have to, to be sure of a home draw.

Munster have a two-point lead in Group Four and play Harlequins at home on Saturday. They go to Castres Olympique the following weekend so they'll need every bit of their solidity and persistence. Ulster are sharing top spot with Stade Français in Group Two but the French team have a superior try count and points difference and also have a slightly easier remaining programme.

As much as I would like to see the Irish adventure continue, my favourites for the Heineken would still be Stade Français and Leicester, the holders.

Leicester have a two-point advantage over Llanelli in Group One. If Llanelli can win in Perpignan on Friday they will set up a thrilling decider against Leicester at Stradey Park the following Saturday. Llanelli had a hiccup on Boxing Day but are playing very well. Scott Quinnell has come storming back from injury and if they get the necessary win in France they are capable of beating Leicester.

Llanelli have a big try and points advantage but the Tigers will be attempting to wipe out the deficit against Calvisano at Welford Road on Saturday so don't expect that scoreline to be pretty.

Bath are riding high in Group Two where they have a big advantage over Swansea who have yet to score a try in the competition. Bath go to St Helens on Saturday and it will be interesting to see if Swansea's sudden return to form can stop the West Country club's unbeaten run.

Bath then play at home to Biarritz and there seems little doubt that the English team will enjoy one of those precious home draws in the quarter-finals.

The destiny of the remaining group, Five, may be settled at Cardiff on Saturday where Montferrand are the visitors. The French team are going well at the moment and if they win this one are almost guaranteed to take the group.

Cardiff have been having a testing run-up to this game but they needed it and at least some of their long list of injured players are starting to re-appear. If they win this, they then play Northampton away.

Glasgow could get their noses into the picture if they win at home to Northampton on Friday but they then have to travel to Montferrand, which is unlikely to be a fruitful journey.

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