The pool stages of the Heineken Cup come to a head this weekend with six of the eight quarter-final places still up for grabs. It's winner takes all at the Stade Marcel Michelin where Clermont Auvergne take on Ulster, and in Pool 5 Saracens need just a losing bonus point against Italian outfit Benetton Treviso to progress to the knock-out stages.
Pool 1: Munster already through. Northampton could qualify if they secure a bonus point win, and a number of other results favour them.
Northampton Saints v Munster Rugby Saturday 18:00
Northampton host Munster at the stadium:mk in Milton Keynes on Saturday looking to exact revenge for their last-gasp defeat to the Irishmen back in the opening round.
The Saints have next-to no hope of progressing to the quarter-finals “ they would need at least half a dozen results to go their way, as well as scoring four tries against Munster “ but a victory would put them in a strong position to claim one of the three places in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals up for grabs.
After losing at home to the Scarlets, they made amends last week with victory in Wales, and will hope to ensure they end the campaign with some pride intact following their ignominious start to the pool stages. The Saints will have to do so without winger Chris Ashton.
The England star, who has scored 95 tries for Northampton in 105 appearances confirmed today that he is to move to Saracens at the end of the season, and following an alleged training ground bust-up with Saints boss Jim Mallinder it appears Ashton has been dropped for Saturday's contest, with some sources even claiming the former League player may have played his last game for the club.
Northampton will also be without injured lock Courtney Lawes, whilst Munster have lost flanker Niall Ronan to a knee injury. His injury means the loss of a third openside flanker for the Celtic League champions, joining David Wallace and Tommy O'Donnell on the sidelines.
Although Munster are already through to the next stage, they will still be intent on securing victory to ensure a home fixture in the quarter-finals, but the Irish province will need to step up a couple of gears to combat a strong Northampton side at a sold-out stadium:mk. Saints by 3.
Castres Olympique v Scarlets Saturday 19:00
A promising start to the campaign from the Scarlets saw them tipped by many as a possible surprise package in this year's competition. However back-to-back defeats to Munster, and last weekend's loss at home to Northampton has put paid to any chance of them making the knock-out stages for a third time.
As with Northampton, Scarlets have a chance of making the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, and with the Saints up against the undefeated Munster, the Welsh side have an opportunity to leap-frog the Englishmen if they can get a result away at struggling Castres.
The Frenchmen will undoubtedly provide a stiff challenge at home “ as Northampton found out to great cost “ but with just one win in the competition so far, and a solitary win in their last seven Top 14 matches, it isn't looking too bright for a Castres side lacking in confidence.
Scarlets will wait on late fitness tests for Sean Lamont and Sione Timani, whilst prop Rhys Thomas is again unavailable after missing the defeat to Northampton with a neck injury. Llandovery prop Peter Edwards has been called up as cover for the injured Thomas. Scarlets by 3.
Pool 2: Edinburgh just need to match Cardiff to progress courtesy of superior head-to-head try count. Bonus point victories for Edinburgh and Cardiff will guarantee each side's qualification. Both can qualify without try bonus-point depending on other results.
Cardiff Blues v Racing Metro 92 Sunday 15:15
Pool 2 is set to go down to the wire, with both Cardiff and Edinburgh tied at the top of the table.
The Blues, like Edinburgh, must win to stand any chance of progressing. They welcome a subdued Racing Metro that has managed just one victory in the tournament so far, but have appeared more threatening on the road than at home.
Cardiff are set to axe Gavin Henson for the crunch match after apparently failing to impress in his opening three games for the Blues. In-form Gavin Evans is expected to return to the squad after missing the London Irish game, but Jamie Roberts remains sidelined with a knee injury.
Racing have little left to play for, and are likely to have one eye on the Top 14 as it returns next week. However they are likely to bring a physical game to Cardiff, and the Welshmen will have to work doubly hard if they are to secure a vital try bonus-point. Blues by 7.
Edinburgh Rugby v London Irish Sunday 15:15
Phil Godman's last gasp drop goal against Racing last week means that Edinburgh have a very real possibility of reaching the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time in eight years.
The Scotsmen top Pool 2 after out-scoring Cardiff two tries to one in their matches against the Welsh side this season, and if they can match what Cardiff do against Racing then they are guaranteed a place in the last eight.
Irish will be looking to save face after a disappointing campaign. Last week's defeat to Cardiff was their fourth out of five, and scoring tries has been a problem, with only Connacht and Aironi managing less in the first five games.
What they have managed to do however is secure losing bonus-points in each of their four defeats, and Edinburgh will have to be wary. Tom Homer's consistent kicking will be a threat, and a fairly solid Irish defence will prove difficult to break in order for the Scottish side to secure four tries that would see them into the quarter-finals regardless of other results. Edinburgh by 5.
Pool 3: Leinster already through. No-one else can qualify from Pool 3.
Bath Rugby v Glasgow Warriors Saturday 13:30
As with London Irish, Bath will want to end what has been an easily forgettable Heineken Cup with victory on Saturday. Things could have been so very different “ had Glasgow not scored a last minute try back in the opening round and Montpellier not done likewise last weekend, Bath would have been in contention for the quarter-finals.
Instead they will have to make do with an opportunity to exact some revenge on Glasgow, as Scotsmen search for a victory that would keep them in contention for a Challenge Cup spot.
Any sort of revenge will not come easily, however. Glasgow are fresh off the back of a superb run of form in the Celtic League, and narrowly missed out on victory over champions Leinster last weekend. The Warriors have never beaten an English side on their travels in the Heineken Cup, although on their previous two visits to the Rec, they have finished within five points of Bath, and Saturday's game is likely to be another close encounter. Bath by 3.
Leinster Rugby v Montpellier Saturday 13:30
After coming so close to a shock defeat of Leinster in the first week, Montpellier finally got their maiden Heineken Cup victory last weekend against Bath. A place in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup could await them if they can make it two in a row in Ireland on Saturday.
Granted, there probably are tougher places to go to and get a victory, though none instantly spring to mind. Leinster may already be through to the last eight, but with the all-important home fixtures up for grabs, the home side will be out to secure victory in a sold-out RDS Arena.
Leinster's cause will be boosted with the news that fly-half Jonathan Sexton and wing Luke Fitzgerald should be fully fit to take their places in the starting line up on Saturday.
Montpellier may have won just once in the competition so far, but with two draws and a pair of narrow defeats they have impressed in their first Heineken Cup outing. The quality of the Irish side, and the 16th man provided by the crowd should be more than enough however to see the home side to victory. Leinster by 10.
Pool 4: A win or a draw for Ulster will see them through. If Ulster lose with a bonus-point, whoever scores the most tries in the match will finish top. If number of tries are level, Ulster will finish top if they finish within 5 points of Clermont. Depending on other results, either side could go through as best runner-up. Leicester have an outside chance if a number of results go their way and they run in at least six tries.
Leicester Tigers v Aironi Rugby Saturday 15:40
Leicester's defeat to Ulster last weekend will have hurt even more than the 33-0 drubbing they received eight years ago, with a second half performance as bad as any in recent memory from the Tigers.
The result means that Leicester are all-but out. They, like Northampton, would need a myriad of results to go their way, as well as scoring a bucket-full of tries to boot.
At least their opponents should provide some try-scoring practice for the Tigers. Aironi conceded 12 tries against a rampant Clermont last week, as they were shown to be completely out of their depth.
Leicester will again be without injured internationals Manu Tuilagi and Toby Flood. The England 10 was sorely missed last week, but his absence will almost certainly not be missed this week.
Aironi are set to end the campaign without even a single losing bonus-point to their name as they sit rooted to the foot of the Pool 4 table. Leicester by more than 10.
Clermont Auvergne v Ulster Rugby Saturday 16:40
Ulster's famous victory last week has put them in pole position in Pool 4, but Saturday's trip to the Stade Marcel Michelin will provide them with their toughest test by far this season.
A win or a draw for the Irish outfit and it is simple “ they are through. If they lose however, it because an entirely different ball-game. Victory for Clermont by more than seven will see them through as group winners, as will a bonus-point victory and a victory of any margin if they score more tries.
If the game was to be tryless, then Ulster would win if they lost be less than the six-point margin they beat Clermont by back in the first week.
Ulster will be up against the most devastating attack in the competition so far “ helped somewhat by their 12 try demolition of Aironi which almost doubled their tries-for in one match “ and as many a team has attested, the Stade Marcel Michelin is a fiery cauldron where away teams simply do not win. Clermont's last defeat at home was back in 2009, a staggering record that Ulster will find nigh-on impossible to break, even if they give the performance of their lives.
The Irishmen will be without in-form centre Darren Cave, who has been ruled out for six weeks with a foot injury but otherwise have no fresh injury concerns following their rout of Leicester last week.
Clermont will have to be wary of Ulster, but will go into the match as firm favourites to make it to the quarter-finals for a fourth time. Clermont by 10.
Pool 5: A losing bonus-point or better will be enough for Saracens to qualify. Biarritz and Ospreys both have an outside chance if other results go their way.
Benetton Treviso v Saracens Sunday 14:00
After a hard-fought victory over Biarritz last weekend, Saracens need just a losing bonus-point in Italy, regardless of what happens between Biarritz and Ospreys in Pool 5's other fixture.
After falling at the pool stages last season, the feeling in the Saracens camp is that the English club can go all the way this season. A home fixture is on the cards if Sarries can secure a decent victory, but the job isn't done yet. Unlike their countrymen Aironi, Treviso have turned a few heads with several impressive performances since joining the Celtic League, and they have shown what they are capable of at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo already in the Heineken Cup with their shock victory over Biarritz.
Saracens will be expecting another physical game, and after grinding out a tough victory over a tough Biarritz side, they will know what is required of them again on Sunday. Saracens by 7.
Biarritz Olympique v Ospreys Sunday 14:00
Both Biarritz and Ospreys are in with an outside chance of qualifying for the last eight as they clash on Sunday afternoon.
If Saracens were somehow to collapse at Treviso, a bonus point victory for Biarritz would be enough to see them top the group. After Ospreys' two defeats to Saracens, they same cannot be said for them, but a bonus point victory could see them with an outside chance of claiming one of the best runners-up spots.
That will be tough, however, despite Biarritz's troubles in the domestic competition, they have been fairly stable at home. The return of Dimitri Yachvili has seen some markedly improved performances, with the France scrum-half inspiring the Basque side to victory in both of their league games since his return from injury, and while they failed to defeat Saracens, the stability brought to Biarritz's game with Yachvili pulling the strings was clear to see.
Ospreys campaign has slowly faded after their opening day victory over Sunday's opponents, and it will be a tough challenge at the Parc des Sports Aguilera. The Welsh province could be without Ryan Jones and Ian Evans, who are both struggling with injuries, but with youngsters Rhys Webb and Ashley Beck in fine form, an upset could be on the cards. Biarritz by 5.
Pool 6: Victory for Toulouse will see the French side through. A win for Harlequins might be enough to see them through as runners-up depending on other results.
Connacht Rugby v Harlequins Friday 20:00
Harlequins nearly threw away all the hard work they had done in defeating Toulouse when they faced Gloucester last week, but they travel to the Sportsground with their hopes of reaching the last eight still alive following a second-half fight back.
Their countrymen could do them a huge favour if they can upset Toulouse on Friday night, but Quins can still qualify as one of the best runners up with a victory against Connacht.
The Irish minnows have impressed in their first year in European rugby's premier competition, but have little to show for it with no wins and just two points on the board. They pushed Gloucester close in both meetings, and gave Harlequins themselves a scare at the Stoop, so Quins should be wary.
Quins trail Toulouse by just two points, and if the French outfit slip up at Kingsholm, they will be ready to pounce. A try-bonus point could be crucial, especially in the fight for the best runners-up spots, but first and foremost Quins will have their sights on securing victory.
Sam Smith will start on the wing, as Tom Williams misses the trip to Galway with his partner expecting the birth of their first child. Elsewhere Joe Marler and Chris Brookes return to the front row and the impressive George Robson returns at lock in a strong Quins side.
Connacht make one change to the side that lost to Toulouse with Ronan Loughney scrumming down in the front row to add to an experienced Connacht side in what promises to be a vigorously contested game. Quins by 7.
Gloucester Rugby v Toulouse Friday 20:00
A win for Toulouse will be enough to see them into the knock-out stages as they travel to Kingsholm on Friday night. They may still qualify even in defeat, but the French side will not be taking any chances against a Gloucester side with nothing more than pride to fight for.
Gloucester ran Toulouse so desperately close at the Stade Ernest Wallon in the first week of the competition, and although their campaign has deflated since then, both domestically and in Europe, they won't roll over for the four-times champions.
Toulouse welcome back Lionel Beauxis, who has been on scintillating form in the Top 14 lately, and his both his goal kicking and his kicking out of hand will add a good deal of stability to the French side. Yannick Nyanga replaces Jean Bouilhou in one of six changes made to the side that saw off Connacht last week.
Gloucester make just one change to the side that ran Harlequins close, with Rupert Harden returning in the front row. The Cherry and Whites could do their fellow countrymen a huge favour, as well as rescue some respectability from the competition if they can manage to go a step further than in France, and gain some revenge following the controversial circumstances that saw them lose in Week 1. Toulouse by 5.