Wasps have no absolute need to put themselves in all-or-nothing territory when they play the ferocious Catalans of Perpignan at Adams Park this afternoon, but they would be well advised to pay a visit there anyway. A four-try victory would leave them only a single point shy of qualification for the knock-out stage of the Heineken Cup; anything less would leave them prey to the unpredictable men of Castres - the sporting equivalent of accepting a dinner invitation from Hannibal Lecter. Survival might not be out of the question, but it would depend entirely on the mood of the host.
Ian McGeechan, the Londoners' director of rugby, understands this perfectly, hence his remark this week about players adopting a "cup final mentality". McGeechan managed his squad with characteristic intelligence over the Christmas period - a run of four Guinness Premiership matches that yielded a 50 per cent return, but could easily have been twice as good. Now the rotation and experimentation have come to an end, it is time to get serious.
Anyone who watched Daniel Leo, the extravagantly coiffeured jack of several trades from Samoa, punch filthy great holes in the Gloucester defence on Boxing Day will wonder how he cannot find a place in McGeechan's starting combination. Something similar might be said of Tom Rees, a young flanker who would surely inject some zip and zest into the England pack given half a chance. Both are on the bench today. Wasps must have some pack of forwards if they feel they can demote this pair to bit-part roles.
Which they do, of course. At least, they do when the main men - Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley, Lawrence Dallaglio - get to grips with their personal demons and deliver the kind of fast, dynamic, opportunistic rugby that raised Wasps to the very heights of the European club game in 2004. Worsley is playing particularly well; Dallaglio, raging against the dying of the light, has every incentive to turn in the kind of performance that would enable him to raise two fingers to those England selectors who do not count him among the best 65 players in the country. One way or another, Perpignan will do very well indeed to leave High Wycombe with anything more than a mathematical interest in the tournament.
Wasps are equipped to win the whole shooting match, whatever they might think in Limerick or Dublin, in Paris or Biarritz. There again, they would rather not travel to Castres in a week's time requiring victory to progress to the business end of the competition. Laurent Seigne's side should claim a bonus-point victory in Treviso today - everyone else has, so why not?
That would leave the Frenchmen at the very centre of the Pool One equation, and Seigne suffered enough Heineken Cup humiliation during his years with Bourgoin to be motivated to the eyeballs for the last of the round-robin fixtures. Dallaglio and company need to minimise the risk.
Leicester, faced with a desperate last match in Munster next weekend, will be chasing a maximum-point victory over Cardiff Blues this afternoon. Despite an unfamiliar look to their back division - no Sam Vesty or Tom Varndell, no Ollie Smith or Andy Goode - they should manage it. And Sale? The English champions are still up a gum tree on the casualty front, but are as courageous as the day is long and will certainly rattle up the points in Calvisano, thereby giving themselves a puncher's chance of qualifying.
They will have to punch like Rocky Marciano, though. Realistically, they have next to no chance. If Stade Français beat the Ospreys in Swansea tomorrow, Sale will at least fancy their chances of heaping more misery on the Welshmen when they meet them at Edgeley Park next weekend. Should the Ospreys see off the Parisians, however, the force will be with them. Both James Hook and Gavin Henson are in their midfield for this one, as is the former All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall. The game is fraught with danger for the visitors, who would see hopes of a home quarter-final evaporate should they succumb.
Strange as it may seem, given the poverty of their rugby at present, Northampton have the most straightforward qualification task of all. In so far as it is possible to imagine them scoring four tries against anyone away from Franklin's Gardens, their visit to the Borders tomorrow has "bonus point" written all over it. Should they do the necessary, they would be in a position to rise up against Biarritz in the final round and complete their passage into the last eight. They will not apologise - why on earth should they? But the organisers might like to explain how their draw produced five pools of death and one sea of tranquillity.Reuse content