Heineken Cup 2014: Four talking points as Ulster look to stay unbeaten
Heineken Cup 2014: Gareth Llewellyn-Stevens takes a look at four talking points ahead of this weekend's fixtures
Calculators at the ready
Ulster, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne, Munster and Leicester Tigers have booked their place in the quarter-finals, but there is still a great deal for many clubs to play for going into round. An astonishing 18 clubs still have the chance of furthering their European adventure with the dream of reaching Cardiff final in May, so this final round of pool matches should be as fraught as ever for many fans and coaching staff. The drama may be a slow-burner with matches played from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon to suit TV broadcasters, but all eyes will inevitably be on Welford Road on Saturday evening to see Leicester and Ulster, who have both qualified, square off to determine quarter-final positions. Kicking off the round on Friday night, Pool 1 will go some way to determining the fate of a number of clubs with Leinster (17 points) and Northampton (13 points) both in contention for the Heineken Cup, facing off against the Ospreys and Castres respectively. Pool 3 is the other to watch closely with Toulouse (19 points) and Saracens (15 points) still in the hunt for top spot, with both expected to come through against Zebre and Connacht respectively. As with Ulster/Leicester, the French side’s superior points will be enough to see them qualify as best runners-up if the Italians pull off one of the shocks of the tournament, and Saracens win. The permutations for the three Amlin Cup quarter-finals places are numerous with so many teams having something to play for. Good thing Sky Sports and the ERC have their own statisticians.
Playing for the jersey
Such an unfortunate cliche banded about by sportsmen, but this weekend it will be very much a case of playing for the jersey for those set to join up with their international teams for the Six Nations, which begins in two weeks. While the French clubs have a Top 14 fixture next weekend, the professional Scottish, Irish and Italian clubs have a week off, although the Welsh regions will participate in the LV [Anglo-Welsh] Cup against English sides, not that many of them use it as anything more than as a run-out for their fringe and development players. So this weekend marks the last full-blooded opportunity to showcase talents and prove they are worth a place in the playing squad, whilst coaches keep fingers and anything else they can crossed that any injuries to star players will be minor. 13 possible debutants in this season’s Six Nations compete in the Heineken Cup with many in outstanding form for their clubs so far this season: Robbie Diack (Ulster and Ireland), Robin Copeland (Cardiff Blues and Ireland), Jack Nowell (Exeter and England) and Luther Burrell (Northampton Saints and England) among the standout performers, while Bath outside-half George Ford again showed he warrants his call-up to the England squad with another superb performance on Thursday night in the Amlin Cup. As if attempting to reach the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup wasn’t enough, there will be even more scrutiny over many players as coaches think about their first XV and fans consider who will be a good bet for their fantasy rugby teams.
Connacht winning in Castres, Munster’s comeback at the death in Perpignan, Brian O’Driscoll’s outrageous through the legs pass to set up a try as they routed Northampton away: the tournament has delivered some brilliant shocks so far courtesy of the Irish.
None more so than Ulster’s five-match unbeaten run in Pool 5 which saw them claims the scalps of Leicester, Montpellier and Benetton Treviso. The Ulstermen are the only unbeaten team in the tournament and are confident of a win at Welford Road in a winner takes top spot (and a home quarter-final) against an experienced side which boasts England internationals in Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Ben Youngs and Toby Flood. Utilising a blend of experience and youth, Ulster have surprised many in the tournament, despite reaching the final of last year’s Pro12 and Amlin Cup. By international comparison, Ulster’s more experienced campaigners include Rory Best (still coming back from injury), Andrew Trimble, South Africans Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller, and former New Zealand international John Afoa, with a half a dozen others winning fewer than 40 caps between them for Ireland. But while confidence is high, Welford Road is a notoriously difficult place to win. The Tigers have lost just one match at home this season to Harlequins in the Aviva Premiership, with high-scoring draws against both Northampton Saints and Bath, which adds to the intrigue of whether Mark Anscombe’s side can continue their fantastic run and set up a quarter-final at a raucous Ravenhill in April.
Forget the politics, love the rugby
This weekend potentially marks the end of an era in European rugby if the ongoing politics around power and money in a pan-Europe competition cannot be resolved. The French and English clubs may have served notice to not play in any future tournament organised by the ERC from next season with the Welsh regions keen to join them, but there is no doubt that the quality of rugby on show in the tournament this year has been the best for some time, producing some thrilling encounters, and we’re not even at the knock-out stages. With the Heineken Cup potentially at an end from the final in May, we can expect even more fireworks from those clubs which have nothing but pride to play for, while former players and fans of teams departing the European adventure this weekend will no doubt indulge in a spot of nostalgia at some of the best sporting moments the tournament has delivered in its 18-year history. Few would deny that a tournament of this quality should bring in more money to the clubs through TV revenue and other sponsorship, but the politics goes deeper than that and is an unwelcome distraction to a fantastic sport which continues to deliver great entertainment on the pitch. The reality, however, is that while the ERC will conduct the semi-final draws at Thomond Park on Sunday and continue with the tournament as usual, and fans across the world marvel at how wonderful the spectacle is, it would be a surprise if Sunday’s quality newspapers aren’t full of more posturing from the blazers running ruining rugby.