It has been a vintage Heineken Cup round-robin campaign – perhaps the most captivating in the 13-year history of world rugby's outstanding club competition. All 10 of this weekend's matches have something riding on them, as did the two played in Glasgow and Biarritz last night, with each of the eight quarter-final places available to the strongest bidders. Under the circumstances, it is just a little difficult to understand why Wasps, the reigning champions, want the tournament format flushed down the nearest toilet. Can it be they simply crave an easier life?
Every season, the Londoners bang on about the iniquities and inequalities of the seeding system; every season their argument is rebuffed by the quality of the entertainment laid before the masses, who attend the pool matches in ever greater numbers. Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, was at it again this week, pleading poverty over a draw that manacled his club to the likes of Munster and Clermont Auvergne. Why, he asked, should the weak – he was referring to Scotland and Italy, of course – be granted a seeding, when some of the higher achievers in the European game suffer so brutally as a result?
No one needed to come up with an answer, for his argument had already been unstitched by Glasgow, who transformed Pool 4 from the most predictable of two-horse races into something far more interesting, and Edinburgh, who mugged both Leinster and Leicester at Murrayfield, and very nearly did for Toulouse as well. Dear old Treviso defeated Newport-Gwent Dragons in Wales a week after going within a try of beating them on home soil, while the overmatched featherweights of Viadana punched massively above their weight, losing one game by three points, two by eight and another by 10.
Yesterday, Dallaglio had more important things to consider: namely, this evening's do-or-die meeting with Munster at Thomond Park. "This is a Test match in all but name," he said. "We have huge respect for Munster – their name is synonymous with this tournament – but when we reach our dressing room and I look around at people like Simon Shaw, Phil Vickery and Raphael Ibanez, I'll feel confident. Home advantage is always a big factor, but if you look at this pool in particular and study how close the games have been and the amount that has been at stake, there is incentive for every player. We know exactly what we are going into in Limerick."
Wasps would dearly have loved to have been at full strength, given Munster's recent addition of the mesmerising All Black wing Doug Howlett to their back division and their fielding of a pack so cohesive that the flanker Alan Quinlan, by some distance the most effective player on the field in the first meeting between the two sides last November, merits only a seat on the bench. But they are not at strength, particularly outside the scrum, where Riki Flutey, such an influential performer at centre, has withdrawn through injury. As Tom Voyce is also hors de combat, Munster will sense weakness both in midfield and out wide.
London Irish are far happier on the personnel front as they head for Treviso, where a four-try victory will guarantee them a home quarter-final. Faan Rautenbach, the hard-scrummaging South African prop, is back in the front row for the first time since early October; Declan Danaher, that most unsung of heroic loose forwards, returns to his best position of open-side flanker after a stint on the blind; and Shane Geraghty, currently wreaking seven shades of havoc with his distribution, is at outside-half. There is a winning look to the team that would account for better opponents than the Italians.
Tomorrow's games in Gloucester and Bristol are not exactly peas in a pod. The former have everything in front of them, the latter have it all to do. Gloucester are confidently expected to give Ulster a hiding, partly because they are within touching distance of a home tie and partly because the men of Belfast are at the lowest of low ebbs.
Chris Paterson, the multi-faceted Scotland international, has beaten the much talked-about Ryan Lamb to the outside-half position, which could be highly significant. If Paterson produces one of his blinders and makes the role his own, the England hierarchy will join Lamb in being distinctly displeased.
Bristol, who must stick four tries past Cardiff Blues and trust to luck elsewhere, expect the Memorial Ground to be a quagmire with a capital "Q" – right up their street, given the likes of Mark Regan, Roy Winters and Andrew Blowers in the pack. When rugby is played in a swamp, the team with the most alligators always prevail. The Welshmen must be dreading it.Reuse content