Heineken Cup: Week 5 Preview


The pool stages of the Heineken Cup enter the final stretch this weekend, and with nobody guaranteed qualification to the quarter finals, everything is still to play for. The clash of the weekend is at Ravenhill, where Ulster will host a Leicester team looking to avoid a repeat of 2004's 33-0 defeat to their hosts. Elsewhere reigning champions face a tricky visit to Glasgow, and the weekend is wrapped up with the top two in Pool 5 coming together as Biarritz travel to Saracens.


Pool 1 

Scarlets v Northampton Saints Saturday 13:30 

Northampton travel to Llanelli on Saturday looking to exact some revenge upon the Scarlets for the defeat inflicted upon them at Franklins Gardens back in November.

Following an indifferent start to the season, and an appalling opening three games in the Heineken Cup, the Saints have really hit their stride. Three wins out of three over Christmas “ including victory over the until recently invincible Harlequins “ has seen last season's finalists leap to third in the Premiership table, and with the reverse match against the Scarlets still painfully fresh in the Northampton players minds, they will be more than a handful for the Welsh side on Saturday.

The Scarlets were also successful in all three of their Christmas fixtures, with narrow wins over Glasgow and the Dragons, as well as defeating second-placed Ospreys. The Welsh region will be desperate for a victory to keep their hope of qualification alive “ back-to-back defeats to table toppers Munster has left them 5th of the six second placed teams with two matches remaining.

Rhys Priestland will, as ever, be a threat “ it was the young Welshman's kicking from hand that left Northampton floundering at Franklins Gardens earlier in the competition “ but it is unlikely that a repeat performance will be on the cards. The Saints' defeat to the Scarlets last time out highlighted the importance of Ben Foden to his side, it will take a great deal of bravery for Priestland to try the same kicks over the top with the England full-back lurking.

The Saints may be without Tom Wood, who could join Courtney Lawes on the Northampton injury list.

Although the Scarlets have everything to fight for and the Saints nothing, Northampton will still bring a tough game to Llanelli. The Welsh side should come out on top “ but the bonus point victory they crave will be too far beyond them, and so too maybe the quarter-finals. Scarlets by less than 7.


Munster v Castres Saturday 15:40

Munster are one of three clubs that can secure their spot in the quarter-finals this weekend “ a bonus point victory over Castres would be enough to ensure they are uncatchable at the top of Pool 1, regardless of what Scarlets achieve against Northampton.

The Irish province will be without back-rower Denis Leamy, who is set for a long lay off for an operation on his injured hip. Leamy, who has won the competition twice with Munster, has been a part in all four of Munster's victories in the competition so far, but will miss the final group games, and the early knock-out stages.

Their opponents Castres have registered just the sole victory over Northampton so far in the Heineken Cup, and have won just one of their last seven in the league. A visit to Thomond Park is the last thing the French outfit need, and after being nilled by Northampton last time out, just scoring points will be a priority for Castres. Munster by more than 10. 


Pool 2

Racing Metro v Edinburgh Rugby Friday 21:00

Edinburgh fans will hope for a repeat of the reverse fixture back in November which saw the Scottish side take a stunning 48-47 victory, despite trailing by more than 20 points with a quarter of the match remaining.

Edinburgh's victory over  Cardiff last time out left them top of the table, but with just six points separating themselves from their hosts, and with London Irish at home on Saturday, there is every chance that all four teams could be in with a chance of topping Pool 2 heading into the final game.

It is, then, even more important that Edinburgh come away with a victory in the French capital on Friday night. A strong performance from Racing Metro saw them defeat London Irish in Reading, but in typical unpredictable French fashion, the Parisians were not so strong at home as they fell to defeat against the English club. This will fill the Scottish side with hope that they can be leading Pool two going into round six against Irish.

As ever with a French side it seems, it depends which Racing team turns up on the day. Home advantage should give racing the edge “ not to mention the host of star names “ but Edinburgh will not go down without a fight. Whatever happens this week, it will by no means be over for Pool 2. Racing by 7. 


London Irish v Cardiff Blues Saturday 15:40

Despite just one victory so far, London Irish somehow still stand an outside chance of qualification from Pool 2. Irish could consider themselves unlucky, losing by a solitary point against Edinburgh, and picking up losing bonus points against Cardiff and Racing Metro, as well as a try bonus point in their only victory against the Parisians.

However they come up against a strengthened Blues side that has lost just one of their last five visits to English sides and may have as many as seven players returning from injury.

Bradley Davies, Paul Tito, Rhys Thomas and Taufa'ao Filise return in the pack, whilst Chris Czekaj, Alex Cuthbert and Gavin Henson could all start on Saturday.

One player who won't be on the team sheet is Jamie Roberts, the centre missing out with a knee injury, but the influx of first team players returning will more than make up for his loss.

With Edinburgh facing a tough tie in Paris, victory for the Blues would put them in pole position to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time in three years, but Irish will prove a tough challenge for the Welsh side. The red card in Cardiff cost them what Toby Booth believed could have been an important away victory, and on home ground, with a full contingent on the field Irish have a great chance of keeping their own qualification hopes alive. Irish by 3. 


Pool 3

Montpellier v Bath Rugby Saturday 14:00

The bottom two sides in Pool 3 clash at the Stade Yves du Manoir as Montpellier welcome Bath.

Montpellier are still somehow without a victory in this year's competition, despite strong showings in all their pool matches so far “ including their famous draw with Leinster.

Bath's sole win “ against Saturday's opponents “ was a tough, hard fought one and the West Country side know that a repeat result will be tougher still in the French side's back yard.

After being humbled by Leinster, Bath's season appeared to be heading in a downward spiral, but their impressive New Year's Day victory over London Irish, and a promising, if fruitless performance against Saracens has put them in better stead for the remainder of the season. Francois Louw will be the man to watch, but Bath will have to control his opposite number, Mamuka Gorgodze, and be wary of the boot of Martin Bustos-Moyano. Montpellier by 3. 


Glasgow Warriors v Leinster Rugby Sunday 12:45

Along with fellow countrymen Munster, Leinster are the only other side undefeated in this year's tournament as they face a tricky encounter at Firhill on Sunday.

Johnny Sexton, who has already racked up 60 points in this season's competition, and Gordon D'Arcy are expected to start after injury worries, as the reigning champions look to extend an unbeaten run in all competitions that stretches back to September.

Glasgow are a side playing with confidence at the moment, but in Leinster they come up against the form team in Europe. They will know Leinster well from their meetings in the domestic league, but they will also know just how hard a task they face on Sunday. They will be buoyed by the fact that they have already beaten the champions once in the league this season, but come into the match off the back of their first defeat in the league since September.

The Scottish side will be without their international prop Moray Low, who has been ruled out for eight weeks with a knee injury, but Ruaridh Jackson will be fit to go head-to-head with Johnny Sexton on Sunday. Leinster by 7. 


Pool 4

Ulster Rugby v Leicester Tigers Friday 20:00

Friday night's clash at Ravenhill promises to be one of the games of the competition so far as table-topping Ulster fact English giants Leicester.

The Irishmen lead the Tigers by just two points, with Clermont Auvergne a single point adrift of Leicester. With the French side expected to secure a five pointer against minnows Aironi, the clash between Ulster and Leicester poses even greater significance.

Victory for either side will put them in command of the group, especially for Leicester who host Aironi in the final game of the pool stages, but that is much easier said than done.

Leicester have always had Welford Road as their impenetrable fortress at home, and so too do Ulster in Ravenhill. The Tigers know all too well after their 33-0 drubbing by the Irish province 8 years ago.

Ulster will be wary of Leicester, however. The English side are steamrolling through the Premiership table after their poor start to the season, and will relish the challenge facing them on Friday night in what promises to be a fiery encounter. Tigers by 3. 


Aironi Rugby v Clermont Auvergne Saturday 14:30

There is unlikely to be any surprises at the Stadio Brianteo on Saturday, where struggling Aironi host the all-singing all-dancing star-studded Clermont Auvergne.

The stats speak for themselves. Aironi have conceded more tries than the other sides in the pool combined, and have yet to get within 14 points of a team, let alone the 7 required for a losing bonus point.

In fairness to the Italian side, it was always going to be a struggle with three teams of such high quality, but all they have left to play for is their pride. Their visitors put 54 points on them back in November, and have scored the most tries in the group.

Clermont are in fact equal top try scorers in the tournament so far, and will expect to add more to that number on Saturday as they look to keep their own hopes of qualification alive. Three points adrift of Ulster, they will want the Irish side to triumph over Leicester on Friday, so the final pool game will become a straight-up knock-out contest between the sides. Clermont by more than 10. 


Pool 5 

Ospreys v Benetton Treviso Friday 20:00

Ospreys are rank outsiders for qualification heading into Friday's match against Treviso in Swansea. The Welshmen are six points adrift of leaders Saracens, and need the English club to slip up against Biarritz on Sunday to stand any chance of qualification.

First they have to get through a tricky fixture against Italian side Treviso. Treviso have managed a shock victory over Biarritz, as well as holding their hosts 26-26 in Italy in the second round.

After a strong start to the competition, back-to-back defeats against Saracens has knocked the stuffing out of the Ospreys,, but head coach Sean Holley has refused to give up, targeting his side with taking 10 points out of a possible 10 from their final two games.

Treviso have performed better than expected in a tough group, and the Italian side will be no pushover, as Ospreys found out in November. There should be enough quality about the hosts however to see them to victory, and restore some European pride to the Welsh club. Ospreys by 7. 


Saracens v Biarritz Sunday 15:00

The game that was initially meant to take place out in Cape Town in South Africa will instead be played in the far more familiar surroundings of Vicarage Road, where Saracens can qualify for the knock-out stages with a victory over Biarritz.

Biarritz, who remain in the relegation places in the French Top 14, will provide a stern challenge for Sarries “ the return of international scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili has rejuvenated a flagging side, and the Basque side have now taken two wins out of two since his return, and have looked a completely different side in the process. They may also welcome back captain Imanol Harinordoquy, following a knee injury that has kept the back row out in recent weeks.

History has always been on the home team's side, with Biarritz currently edging Saracens 3-2, but Sarries will look to ensure that it is status-quo, with the home side coming out on top. With the added incentive of securing qualification, the English champions should have enough quality to secure victory, and top spot in Pool 5. Saracens by 5. 


Pool 6 

Toulouse v Connacht Rugby Saturday 16:40

Toulouse remain top of Pool 6, despite Harlequins incredible victory at the Stade Ernest-Wallon last time out. The French champions will be without Romain Millo-Chluski, the second-rower out for up to three months with a shoulder injury, adding to the injuries of Gary Botha and Gurtho Steenkamp.

However it should not affect the four times Heineken Cup champions as they take on winless Connacht on Saturday. After defeat to Aironi last weekend, the Irish minnows have now lost thirteen games in all competitions, and they don't come much tougher than a visit to Toulouse.

If Harlequins were to slip up against Gloucester, then a bonus point victory for Toulouse would all-but see them qualify, however it is likely to go down to the final game of the pool, and Toulouse will need to take every chance they can against a stubborn Connacht side. Toulouse by more than 7. 


Harlequins v Gloucester Rugby Saturday 18:00 

Harlequins know they must win against Gloucester in an all-English clash at the Stoop on Saturday evening to keep the pressure on Toulouse.

After their stunning start to the season, Quins have suffered a dip in form with two albeit tough defeats in three games in the Premiership. Gloucester have hardly been setting the Premiership alight, however, and following a heavy defeat at the Stoop earlier in the season, it is going to be another uphill struggle for Gloucester.

The West Countrymen still have a chance of qualification “ trailing Toulouse by four points “ but it would take huge wins both today and next week against the French champions, and going by recent form you have to say that Gloucester don't currently have the ability to do so.

Quins will soon lose the heart of their squad to the Six Nations, and Connor O'Shea will task his men with securing their quarter-final spot before they head off for international duty. The quality throughout the Harlequins squad has been on display all season, and it's difficult to look beyond anything other than another Quins victory this weekend. Quins by 7.