Quite often by this stage of the Heineken, or Heineken Champions Cup as it now is, we have been clutching at straws, hoping that, if everything goes right one of our Pro teams might sneak into the quarter-finals.
It hasn’t happened often, three or four times in 20 years. Well, of course, this shows how tough it is, and it’s even tougher since the Cup was remodelled a couple of years ago. The first fact we should recognise is that there are now no poor teams in the Champions Cup.
So it’s very pleasing that this year both Edinburgh and Glasgow are in a position from which they have a very good chance of qualifying. Halfway through the pool stage, Edinburgh lead their group, while Glasgow are second behind Saracens in theirs. That’s to say, qualification for the quarter-finals is in their own hands. Neither club depends on other results in order to advance to the knockout stages.
On the face of it Glasgow have the easier task. If their pool looked daunting, this was principally because the presence of Saracens made it likely that they would have to beat both Cardiff Blues and Lyon home and away. This then looked certain when they lost at home to Saracens in the opening match. It was a narrow defeat, only 3-13, but not narrow enough to let them secure a losing bonus point. However they have now beaten Cardiff Blues and Lyon, both away from home, and have picked up a four-try bonus point in each match. So they have the return home fixtures, Lyon today and the Blues in January, and there is reason to look for a bonus-point win in both. This would give them 20 points, almost certainly enough even before they play the return against Saracens. Lyon’s chance of qualification has already gone after three defeats, while Cardiff’s will probably have done so after they play Saracens today.
Edinburgh’s position at the top of their pool is a mite more precarious because their next two matches, Newcastle tomorrow and Toulon in January are both away from home. Newcastle perforce fielded a weakish team at Murrayfield and proved difficult. They are likely to be even more so at home. Then Toulon, having started the season lamentably, have begun to find form. They played very well against Montpellier last week, their young fly-half Anthony Belleau being in sparkling form. Edinburgh must get something from these two matches, and then hope to end the pool stages with a convincing win against Montpellier at Murrayfield. It’s certainly not beyond them, but it’s a considerable challenge.
Edinburgh don’t yet have Glasgow’s strength in depth, not behind the scrum anyway. One consequence is that I guess that Richard Cockerill has a surer idea than Dave Rennie of what his best starting XV – and indeed match-day squad – may be. This is not necessarily a bad thing of course. Sometimes if your injury list is short you may have an embarrassment of riches. Keeping everyone happy when you have at least two very good players for each position isn’t easy.
There was a good deal of disgruntlement, even unhappiness, here when the Heineken was recast and the number of teams involved cut from 24 to 20 three years ago, partly, or indeed principally, at the insistence of the English Premiership and French Top 14 clubs. One of their complaints was that too many clubs from what was then the Pro 12 qualified more or less automatically. The message really seemed to be that they didn’t want clubs from what they thought was an inferior league in which nobody was threatened with relegation, cluttering up and sometimes distorting the pools in the new Champions Cup.
This being so, it’s quite agreeable to think that, if things go right for Glasgow and Edinburgh, five of the quarter-finalists may come from the despised league without relegation, with the Scottish clubs joining Leinster, Munster and Ulster, and only Racing 92 and Toulouse from France, and Saracens from England alone.
Of course it may not work out like that. Gloucester also have a good chance of qualifying, and Newcastle’s hope isn’t dead. Leicester Tigers might squeeze through, but to have any chance of doing so will probably have to beat Racing at Welford Road this weekend. However, Bath, Wasps and Exeter now find themselves in the position that the Scottish clubs have been in too often: halfway through the pool stages and only honour to play for.
All quite amusing for us, all the more so because the complaint from the South now is that English clubs are disadvantaged because their Premiership, with the threat of relegation, is so demanding, and of such a high standard that nobody can rest players as the Irish, Scottish and Welsh clubs can and do. Another way of looking at this is to say that it’s their choice. Clubs could practise rotation if the club owners insisted this should be done. A bit unlikely, you may say, and would probably be right.