It is all set up for a fascinating, fantastic final round of pool games in Europe. A number of teams may have already qualified for the last eight but the difference between a home and away quarter- final is so often the difference between the last four and the exit door – that few games lack a competitive edge.
My travel plans for next week were altered Friday night by a potent Munster performance. Castres were not at full strength or
or their best but the destructive capacity of Munster on the night was something to behold. The balance of pace and power in the centre (this week’s Tactics Land subject on the Rugby Club) has added a dimension long missing. Trevor Halstead and Barry Murphy will be as important as a resurgent Paul O’ Connell and the forwards when they go in search of victory and a quarter-final berth in the Saturday night match of the weekend with Sale.
The Sharks are unbeaten in Europe, top of the English domestic game, just as Gloucester were when Munster produced a famous four try win to take the tournament onto another atmospheric level a few years back. Sale need to stop Munster winning with a bonus point or earn one themselves to remain top of the group and give themselves maximum chance of a home knock out tie. Were they to win, Munster, with 19 points might just be relying on Bath to beat Leinster the next day to stay in the tournament. It is a weekend rich with ironic possibility.
If Munster produced the performance of the weekend, Welford Road produced the game of the round and the comeback of the tournament to date. Stade seemed to have the Tigers caged at 22-12 with 12 minutes to go but this was old Tigers spirit. It was superb. They have now pulled two wins out of the proverbial hat. I expect them to complete the task and qualify against Clemont Auvergne, one of the disappointments of the competition.
If Cardiff Blues – who are fighting with the two Irish provinces, Leeds (at time of writing they had yet to play Calvisano in round five and remained in contention), Saracens and Stade for the two best runner up spots- fail to qualify it will have been another downbeat tournament for the Welsh regions. Still, Wales did not have a qualifier for the last eight last season and went on to win the Grand Slam. A timely reminder that club rugby, first and foremost, exists for its own sake and not as an international feeder system. I wonder if the IRB are listening
Heineken Cup on Sky Sports this weekend
Friday January 20
Clermont Auvergne vs Leicester SS2 7.25pm
Saturday January 21
Scarlets v Toulouse SS2 12.30pm
Biarritz v Saracens SS2 12.30pm
Munster v Sale SS1 5.10pm
Sunday January 22
Leeds v Cardiff Blues SS2 12.30pm
Bath v Leinster SS2 12.30pm