Scottish clubs still have reasons to chase Heineken Cup wins, writes Iain Morrison
THE Heineken Cup resumes next weekend with the fifth round of pool matches, followed swiftly by the sixth and deciding ones a week later. Perpignan travel to Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon, where Edinburgh need a victory to have any chance of being one of the three second-placed teams that will drop into the Amlin Challenge Cup after the eight Heineken play-off places are finalised. Even then, Edinburgh will almost certainly need another four or five points from their final pool match and Munster’s Thomond Park is not the ideal venue to go looking for them.
Glasgow make the long trip to the South Coast to play Exeter on Saturday with little apparently to play for after recording just one win in the competition to date, over the same opposition at Scotstoun. This was supposed to be the season that Glasgow shook off their miserable Heineken Cup record but it seems stuck as tight as a tick on a dog’s backside. At least, as coach Gregor Townsend pointed out the other day, another European slump will allow the Warriors to concentrate their efforts on the day job.
Not to say that the Glasgow boss has given up on scalping the Chiefs at Sandy Park. Glasgow need another win to bolster a self-confidence that has proved brittle this season. The club are playing so far within their capabilities that it is hard to remember the free-scoring rugby they showcased last season.
There is also the matter of Scotland places to fight for after the second leg of the 1872 Cup derby was postponed less than an hour before kick-off, just as the Treviso match had been. Someone needs to make these calls a little earlier.
If it has been a disappointing year for the Scottish challenge, better funded now than at any time in history, it’s not been a vintage year for the competition as a whole. There have been too many mismatches, too many cricket scores and too few nail-biters. For every Saracens 16, Toulouse 17 humdinger, there have been two or three games where only one side seems interested. Exeter put 44 points past the Blues, Toulon racked up 51 against Glasgow and Saracens scored 64 points when playing Zebre but the RaboDirect whipping boys have been so poor that they would almost welcome being jettisoned from this tournament. In four games to date the Italian franchise has an aggregate score of 24-174 and their total points accumulated would not have been enough to win any one of their games.
There have been some standout ties and they usually involved Irish teams, who seem to save their best for this competition. Lowly Connacht beat Toulouse in the south of France, while Leinster were the nearest thing to an unstoppable force when they made Northampton look ordinary in their own back (Franklin’s) garden.
There are a few standout fixtures coming up over the next fortnight. Harlequins can do themselves a favour by beating Clermont at the Stoop on Saturday, Leinster have a tricky away game against French champions Castres on Sunday and the match between Toulouse and Saracens in France could determine who tops Pool 3. It is that time in the competition when freak results occur as teams with everything to play for come up against those with no prospects.
The Scottish teams may be struggling to make their presence felt in the Heineken Cup but it is becoming increasingly difficult to break into Europe’s elite and, if I’m right about the quarter-final line-up below, only two of the clubs have not already won this trophy and either Clermont or Saracens would be popular winners.