We’re in for an exciting weekend of top action
THE HEINEKEN CUP group stage's penultimate games took place last weekend and left the provinces in no uncertain terms as to what had to be done to secure safe passage into the quarterfinals. With one through, one out and two on a knife edge their fortunes are varied, making for a cracking round 6 to come.
Ulster once again plied their impressive trade on the Friday night with a healthy victory over Glasgow at Ravenhill in biblical conditions to become the first team to qualify for the next stage.
The weather was something of a leveller in the first half and it showed with only a penalty and a Nick Williams (at his rampaging best) try to Ulster's name despite their territorial dominance at the break.
In this regard, maestro Ruan Pienaar played a shrewd game with a multitude of aerial attacks, forcing Glasgow into some costly handling errors.
It wasn't until the introduction of the newly married scrum half Paul Marshall (and the removal of the epic downpour) that the home side really got moving with tries from Jared Payne and a particularly fine effort from Darren Cave to put the win beyond doubt.
Their failure to secure the bonus point try however has put them under a fair bit of pressure to secure a home quarter-final.
This made Pienaar's kick to touch in the last play of the game rather baffling as they now have to get something out of this weekend's match in Castres to avoid this eventuality.
Ulster have never won a competitive match on French soil so the chance of a trip to Toulon, Clermont or Toulouse in the knock outs will not sit well.
Connacht's Saturday lunchtime fixture pitted them against Conor O'Shea's high flying Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop.
The dominance of Harlequin's pack at the breakdown and scrum was the initial undoing of the Westerners, culminating in a penalty try five minutes before the break.
To give Connacht their dues they were full of free flowing rugby with young Tiernan O'Halloran in particular running some fabulous lines. Alas the flood gates opened following a spat of yellow cards with Quin's favourite Ugo Monye claiming the bonus point try on his 200th cap for the club.
Two further tries in the last two minutes put a gloss on the score line that Connacht didn't deserve but the Heineken Cup can be a harsh mistress at times.
All in all I think Connacht will be happy with their development in what will be Eric Elwood's last season in charge, their victory over Biarritz in the Showgrounds being the highlight.
The appointment of a new coach has been a touch more tumultuous than it needed to be with the media bandwagon jumping on the fact that Eddie O'Sullivan wasn't considered, coupled with first choice Sean Holley's refusal.
In Pat Lam they have a coach that will surely buy into Connacht's unique ethos, progressing on from all the good work that Elwood has done in the province over the last few years.
The hemorrhaging of their best and brightest to the bigger provinces will have to be the first item on his agenda with the IRFU.
Meanwhile one of the big bad provinces in question gave themselves a Heineken lifeline with a bonus point win over the Scarlets at the RDS on Saturday evening. The return of the exceptional trio of Kearney, Fitzgerald and O'Driscoll aided in a win that saw the backline begin to look more akin to the one that won three titles in four years.
Fitzgerald looked hungry for work throughout and made a considerable amount of line breaks, bagging himself a try and the man of the match award in the process. Kearney also exuded confi- dence with an assured display, showing little reminance of his back surgery with a pirouette to score under the posts.
An injury to O'Driscoll's 'good' ankle will have Joe Shmidt on tender hooks for the week, although the war horse himself has stated it's not that bad (but then he usually plays broken).
His deft flicks and offloads were a thing of beauty for the 20 minutes he was on, reminding us all of what we were missing.
Leinster will need all the help they can get next weekend where they'll require another bonus point win in Exeter but they've certainly given themselves a fighting chance at progression.
Munster, on the other hand, didn't quite do all they could on their travels to Edinburgh where they failed to secure the bonus point, effectively ruling out the advantage they had over Leinster in the race for one of the two precious runner up spots.
Their only chance of topping the group is if Saracens lose to Edinburgh which I really can't see happening, so they may live to regret the missed opportunity.
You'd have been forgiven for thinking that this match would have been a romp for the reds with Edinburgh winless and only playing for pride but the Scots had other ideas.
In the quiet of Murrayfield (a library has more atmosphere), Munster tried their collective hearts out but to little endeavour, only achieving two of the four tries required.
They seemed to get themselves into the right positions only for errors to creep in, allowing Edinburgh to clear their lines.
Their game plan also needs to be looked at, particularly in midfield where they seem clueless at times.
The scrum was one of the few pluses with Dave Kilcoyne in fine fettle, Ireland enjoying a glut of loose heads on form at the moment.
Next week they'll be facing a Racing Metro side who will have hopefully given up the ghost when they visit Thomond Park, although even their B team will be littered with internationals.
Chances are they'll be without Ronan O'Gara who's been cited (at time of press) following his moment of madness as he lashed a kick at Sean Cox's legs out of pure frustration.
You'd have thought the all-time top point's scorer would know better by now. I'd argue that Munster would be better served with Keatley at 10 anyway with JJ Hanrahan as back up, effectively giving the misfiring midfield a bit more time on the ball.
So now to the maths for next weekend's runner up qualification possibilities (and I'll try not to bore you too much).
Essentially there are three teams vying for two places (Montpellier, Leinster and Munster).
If Toulouse are beaten by Leicester but secure two losing bonus points along the way they'll also be in the mix (with 20 points) but I'd expect them to do the job in Stade Toulousain and top the group, ruling Leicester out.
Biarritz and Northampton could both get 19 points with bonus wins so to keep these two teams out of the running, Munster and Leinster need the bonus points to finish on 20 apiece.
Montpellier host a Toulon team yet to be beaten so fingers crossed that remains the case, ruling them out of contention. A win for Montpellier would send them through at the expense of one of the two provinces. If this comes to pass it will come down to tries scored where Munster currently hold the upper hand with nine over Leinster's eight. Munster also have the luxury of knowing what they have to do as they don't play until the Sunday.
Whatever happens, we're in for another nail biting weekend!