17 December 2013

Heineken dog fight is compelling viewing

This year’s Heineken Cup has turned into one hell of a dog fight. It is impossible, even at this stage of the tournament, to pick a favourite and who will even qualify for the quarter-finals is far from decided yet. In terms of sports drama it is compelling viewing.

Each of the six pools has it’s own tale to tell and their possible outcomes are largely unpredictable with just two rounds of pool games remaining.

In Pool 5, Ulster are the only team in tournament with a 100% record, having won all four pool games to date. Under normal circumstances that would probably make them a certainty for quarter-finals. Although they still have to overcome Montpellier at Ravenhill to make sure of making the final eight. But even if they win that Round 5 game, due to Leicester’s last minute win in Montpellier, it will almost certainly result in Ulster having to win their final pool game at Welford Road to be sure of a home draw in the quarter-final.

Of course there are teams like Ulster who are in charge of their particular Pool. But in most cases teams have to win their two remaining pool games to be sure of a quarter-final spot.

Leinster seemed to be cruising through Pool 1 until they were beaten at home by Northampton last weekend. They now have two tricky pool games remaining against Castres (away) and Ospreys (home). A loss in either of those games would put their progress out of the pool in grave jeopardy. Northampton, who looked dead in the water after losing 7 – 40 to Leinster in Round 3, are very much back in the hunt for qualification.

In Pool 2, Toulon were hot favourites to win qualification pulling up. But their form has been far from convincing and they have struggles in all games to date against Exeter, Glasgow and Cardiff (who beat them in Round 2). Toulon still face a difficult trip to Glasgow in their final Pool game, as the home team will see a victory over Toulon as a huge scalp. Any slip up in Glasgow could see Cardiff pip Toulon to win the Pool.

In Pool 3 Toulouse got their campaign back on track by getting a bonus point win against Connacht at the Sportsground. But they are level on points with Saracens whose only defeat came at the hands of Toulouse at Wembley in Round 2. Saracens still have huge Heineken ambitions and will travel to Toulouse in Round 5 with every intention of taking back control of the group. So the outcome of this Pool is far from decided.

In Pool 4 Clermont came unstuck to Racing Metro in Round 1. Hardly the shock of the tournament, particularly as the game was played in Paris. But Racing Metro have since been the disappointment of the tournament losing to Scarlets and twice to Harlequins. So Racing Metro’s Heineken Cup is effectively over. But despite losing to Scarlets and Clermont, Harlequins remain the big threat to Clermont in the Pool. If Clermont were to slip up in their next game against Harlequins, it would open the gate to Harlequins by giving them the chance of winning the Pool in Round 6.

Munster’s last minute win in Perpignan, along with Gloucester’s home defeat to Edinburgh, puts Munster in control of Pool 6. But Munster still have to travel to Gloucester for Round 5. Should Gloucester beat Munster it would mean the outcome of the Pool would be decided in Round 6, with the runner-up unlikely to qualify for the quarter-finals.

This season the unpredictability of results since Round 1 of the tournament has only added to the excitement and interest in the competition.

The titanic struggles that are ensuing with regard to qualification for the quarter-finals are a testament to how compelling the tournament has become. For the most part, the passion, intensity and commitment on display from the teams, continues to be reflected in the huge interest from the public.

The fact that this level of competition has been delivered despite the appalling backdrop of the tournament imploding by next season just crystallises the importance of saving the Heineken Cup.