So much to look forward to on so many levels…
So much to look forward to on so many levels; whilst Friday night’s main match between Gloucester and Leicester is predominantly about where Leinster will finish in the seeding for the quarter finals it is nevertheless a chance for Gloucester’s supporters to see some of Europe’s finest backs in action. Shane Horgan’s consistent excellence should put him now in the same breath as Gordon D’Arcy, if not quite Brian O’ Driscoll at his best. Right now the flatterers of Europe are in a flattening mood.
But it is Saturday that promises to be one of the Heineken Cup’s most compelling of days. Castres versus Wasps is sudden death, with Wasps effectively having the advantage of seven points start. But will that be enough on the road where they have been so shaky so often this season. Can Phil Vickery and Lawrence Dallaglio settle nerves? Can Danny Cipriani build his reputation further after an exciting showing against Perpignan?
Then to Sale where the champions of England must win with a bonus point to have a hope of making one of the two best runner ups with twenty points. Against them, the Ospreys – so average for an hour and so inspired for twenty minutes against Stade – and another chance to watch the steel nerves and sharp step of Britain’s hottest prospect, James Hook.
Keep room for the main course, though. Munster bid farewell to Thomond Park (or at least this old version of the ground) against Leicester. The winners take the pool. Munster have qualified but want to control the semi final venue. The Tigers need a point to guarantee qualification. An eight point defeat takes them out at pool stage.
Leicester are in better form – their back line is in physical overdrive after a few difficult months; Munster appear to have been pushing the boundaries of what is within their scope as a team and have been loose as a result. The champions of Europe need Trevor Halstead’s physical presence to keep them playing on the front foot, Leicester need Harry Ellis to keep his newly and belatedly discovered composure. He is one of many players who will probably book a Test spot with another accomplished display; but this one is all about the Heineken Cup. What Leicester would give to take the immaculate record of Thomond Park on its final day in its current format?
Sunday is not quite so frenetic although Stephen Jones tangling with Shane Geraghty is reason enough to what this game for a neutral. Geraghty was impressive against Toulouse last week and another strong display against the Scarlets and the Welsh captain could have Brian Ashton thinking while Jones himself will not want Gareth Jenkins thinking too much about the rise of James Hook.
Biarritz, like Llanelli Scarlets will be targeting the highest seeding, although as the last pool of the weekend, they will know every possible permutation. Will they play for second place seed and allow the Saints the bonus point to guarantee their position as best placed runner up? Or will they take either the Ospreys, Sale or Leicester at home (Agen are an outside bet but very outside) and say, what the hell? Or am I being too cynical here? Probably the latter; perhaps Biarritz will want to make a statement and perform flat out; but then again, I doubt it..