Well, the Heineken Cup returns this weekend and it’s getting very close to the knock-out stages! In fact, this is the penultimate series of matches for the teams, with only 1 weekend left before we get to the quarter-final rounds.
At least 12 of the teams in the Heineken have a chance of progressing to the quarter-finals and with only 8 spots available, match results are more important than ever. Also, with some teams already guaranteed qualification the focus for those teams is now on being in the top 4 qualifiers which assures them a home quarter-final (which should increase their chances of reaching a semi-final).
(After the final round of matches, the 8 teams are ranked in order of points they’ve achieved (the 8 teams are made up of the 6 pool winners/leaders and the 2 runners-up with the highest points tally). When the teams have been ranked they’re then paired off (ie 1st plays 8th, 2nd plays 7th etc) 1-4 also get home quarter-finals. All things being equal, teams 1-4 should be the ones to advance to the semi-finals. But maths never really adds up in rugby! .
Of the 4 Irish provinces, Ulster have already guaranteed themselves a place in the quarter-finals having beaten Montpellier earlier today. Munster and Leinster still top their pools but need to win both their final matches to proceed, never mind be assured of a home quarter-final.
Munster face Gloucester, away on Saturday (at 6pm). Munster are top of Pool 6, with 14 points (Gloucester have 9). Munster are the clear favourites as Gloucester have being having a pretty poor run of luck recently.
Gloucester are currently ranked 9th in the Premiership table (out of 12) and have won only 2 of their 4 Heineken Cup games (and lost the other 2).  Gloucester have also lost 6 of their 9 games this season (forget what I said about playing at home being an advantage, doesn’t seem to be, in any sport at the moment!).
Munster, in contrast, have had a much better season, having won 3 of their 4 Heineken Cup games and are currently ranked 1st (out of 12) in the Rabo (though, to be fair the Premiership is a tougher competition than the Rabo).
Munster have a much stronger side, with Conor Murray and Keith Earls returning from injury in the backs, bolstered by 1 of the most impressive packs in rugby, with Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony leading the charge.
Gloucester have a good enough team but a team that has been very inconsistent. They’ve scored great victories against Northampton and Perpignan, but lost to Edinburgh (Ed also beat Munster) and Sale. When Munster faced Gloucester earlier in the tournament, the Irish province won well, 26-10.
Leinster travel to France to face Castres on Sunday, 12.45. Leinster actually have a very tough itinerary, as they have only 5 days to recover from that match, before they face Ospreys at home, on Friday, Jan 17th.
Leinster are currently top of the pool, with 13 points, and have won 3 of their 4 games. The loss occurred against Northampton, at home (which was a shock, especially as Leinster had crushed Northampton the week before, away). Leinster are also doing well in the Rabo (they’re 2nd in the pool), having won 8 out of 12 games (with 1 draw and 3 losses).
Leinster have a strong lead in the pool (Castres, 3rd, have 8 pts) and a win here would seal their place in the quarter-finals. Leinster’s only concern then would be getting the highest number of points possible. Leinster have picked a very strong team, the only absentee being the still-injured Sean O’Brien.
Castres are 3rd in the pool and have won only 2 of their Heineken games (one of their losses been to Leinster, 19-7). Castres are doing much better in the Top 14, where they’re ranked 3rd (out of 14). As Castres have no chance of advancing to the quarter-finals of the Heineken they may decided to concentrate on the Top 14 and be less focused on the Heineken, which would help Leinster’s chances.

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