Rugby cup looks half full for English

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Maybe it is something to do with the Jonny Wilkinson injury saga, even if that did have the small compensation this week of offering a magnificent Freudian slip when Newcastle Falcons announced that their reticent celebrity had a "media ligament injury", as opposed to a medial one.

Or perhaps it is the inevitable equal and opposite reaction to the euphoria of winning the World Cup a little more than a year ago, as the national team have struggled somewhat since.

Whatever the reason, English rugby is so gloom-laden that one half expects Twickenham crowds to dump "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" in favour of parodying the late Ian Dury with "Reasons to be Cheerless". Latest of those reasons is the likely progress, or lack of it, of English clubs in this season's Heineken European Cup. As the final round of pool matches began on Friday night, pessimists were constructing plausible models for a final eight consisting of five French clubs, two Irish provinces and Newport.

Bath and Harlequins are out already. Gloucester need a whopping victory over Stade Français and Wasps have to win at Biarritz, who have lost at home once in five Heineken campaigns.

Whatever Leicester do to Calvisano, they are at the mercy of events elsewhere. Northampton, who played on Friday night against Glasgow, were well placed but vulnerable if they failed to pick up a bonus point, never mind failing more meaningfully. Newcastle, the only English team leading their group, have an injury crisis that has deprived them of a recognised outside-half and a goalkicker for their final match tomorrow against improving Newport Gwent Dragons.

None of this is impossible for the English teams but then we are at the stage of the competition which offers a mind-bending range of contingencies, the cup's already formidable complexities being given a further fiendish dimension by the introduction last year of bonus points.

You could as easily build a model under which no French side qualifies and there are five English teams in the last eight, although this required Toulouse to lose at home to Llanelli last night. Wasps, after all, won brilliantly in parallel circumstances away to formidable Perpignan this time last year. Stade have not won away for four months in the French championship.

Anything is possible in the Heineken. What is likely is another matter. If the best guess is that two English clubs will make the last eight, that is not just a matter of weighing up current standings and likely results. It is also exactly what has happened for each of the last five seasons.

The seven English teams have a success rate of 56 per cent going into the final pool matches - exactly their average at the same stage over those five seasons. Where this year is different is that none of them has really dominated their group. So while having no English teams in the quarter-finals is a remote possibility, it is highly plausible that none will be at home for those games. Newcastle have fewer points than any other pool leader and, even if they beat Newport, need two of the other five to slip up to get one of the four home seedings.

And one has to wonder whether either of England's best bets - Newcastle with their fast but lightweight pack and Northampton with their Zurich Premiership relegation worries - are equipped to see off one of the big beasts on their own ground, let alone reach the final. While the quarter- finals are unlikely to be non-English, the later stages may well be. A sign of decline, with worrying implications for the national team, after taking the Heineken Cup four times in the last five seasons? Possibly, but let's remember what the odd year out was: 2003. If English rugby has forgotten what else happened that year, then it really is suffering from depression.

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