Quins fly lonely flag as English clubs face more humiliation in Europe
It has not been a happy time for English clubs in Europe – in the last three Heineken Cup campaigns, the Premiership fraternity have filled only four of the 24 quarter-final places available – and if results go the wrong way this weekend, another humiliation will be on the cards.
As things stand, only Harlequins, the reigning national champions, can be completely confident of a place in the knockout stage, thanks largely to a friendly pool draw and the decline of a once great team in Biarritz.
At the halfway stage of the round-robin phase, 50 per cent of the English challenge is virtually in the past tense. Sale, whose perilous position at the bottom of the Premiership means they have more important things on their collective mind than a place in the last eight of Europe's elite tournament, are just about as dead as Monty Python's parrot after last weekend's defeat by Toulon, while Exeter's chances of progress depend on them ending Clermont Auvergne's epic run of home success in mid-January. The phrase "fat chance" springs to mind.
Something similar goes for Northampton, finalists two seasons ago. Comprehensively beaten in the East Midlands by Ulster last Friday night, they must win the return game in Belfast on Saturday to stand an earthly of maintaining their interest in the tournament beyond the final round of pool games. As Ravenhill remains one of the most forbidding venues in northern hemisphere rugby – its proximity to Dr Ian Paisley's Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church gives it a little added extra in the way of unbreachability – few Saints supporters will be travelling in hope.
Saracens, who completed the first tranche of pool games in excellent shape, are also vulnerable, all of a sudden. Even though they squeezed out a losing bonus point in Limerick at the weekend, another loss to Munster, by some distance their least favourite European opponents, at Vicarage Road in five days could leave them at serious risk from the Parisians of Racing Métro, whom they must visit next month.
Not even Leicester, two-time Heineken Cup champions, can approach the second half of the group stage with any certainty.
Their close shave against the Italians of Treviso two days ago makes this weekend's trip to the Veneto unusually itchy, and even if they return with a full five-point haul, their last two games will be very difficult indeed: a trip to Swansea to face an Ospreys side likely to be bolstered by returning front-line players currently missing through injury, followed by a home game against a Toulouse team of all the talents. That could easily turn out to be a fixture of the "win or bust" variety.
Tomorrow, the Premier Rugby chief executive, Mark McCafferty, and the Bath owner, Bruce Craig, will continue their discussions with the European Rugby Cup board – talks aimed at changing the format of the competition to make it "more meritocratic". Judging by the current standings, they should be careful what they wish for.
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