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While rugby administrators glare at each other from their entrenched positions over next season’s threatened French boycott of the Heineken Cup, the players have much more immediate concerns as the current tournament reaches the final, do or die matches of the pool stage this weekend.
While four teams have already qualified, only Biarritz can relax, secure in the knowledge that their 25 points have sealed home advantage in the quarter-finals. Leinster (20 points), who played at Gloucester on Friday night, Munster (22) and Llanelli (23) went into the final weekend with work still to do.
The fifth place will go to Stade Français (17), on the assumption that the French championship leaders are capable of seeing off Calvisano, who have lost their last 23 Heineken ties, in Paris.
That there are as yet no English qualifiers might seem to confirm the dire prognostications back in October when only one team out of six won its opening fixture. The reality, though, is that all three remaining places may go to English teams – repeating the record representation of the last two seasons. Since that chastening opening weekend, 17 matches out of 24 – matching last year’s record 71 per cent success rate – have been won.
Wasps (19) go to second-placed Castres with a four-point advantage in pool one and should be capable of holding off their rivals sufficiently to take the group. The runners-up will drop into a battle for the two best runners-up places in which Northampton (20) appear to have all the advantages.
Miserable though their Premiership form may be, the Saints have taken full advantage of a desperately weak group. Their visitors, Biarritz, may not exert themselves unduly and Saints have the advantage of knowing exactly what they will need as their match takes place on Sunday, after every other contender for qualification has played.
It is far from impossible that Northampton will be through before they play. Immediately behind them in the chase are Leicester (19), whose finale could hardly be more different as they have to go to holders Munster.
The Irishmen have their 29-match unbeaten run and a home quarter-final draw to play for. If Leicester win – a hope founded on the dominance attained in the scrummage even as Munster were winning at Welford Road – they can take the group and relegate the Irishmen to a best runner-up place. Lose – and particularly if defeat brings no consolation bonus points – and they risk being overhauled by the winner of the pool-three clash between Sale (15) and Ospreys (16).
Sale dominated physically in Swansea in October only to be overthrown at the last by arguably the most remarkable try scored anywhere in 2006. Since then, Sale have been ravaged by injuries but shown an admirably bloody-minded resilience while Ospreys propensity for slow starts followed by injury time drama was shown against last week in the draw with Stade.
An Ospreys victory would make two Welsh qualifiers possible for the first time in seven seasons, underlining a spectacular advance from last year’s 33 per cent success rate to this year’s 63 per cent. They may face two cliffhangers this weekend – their own at Sale followed by an agonising wait for the news from Northampton.
A Castres (15) victory against Wasps would add whoever does not win the group to the best runners-up mix. Should Castres not progress, France will have only two quarter-finalists, its lowest ever representation.
Ireland’s duo are qualifying together for the sixth season running – Munster’s run of quarter-final appearances extending to a ninth year.
Hoping to break much less admirable consistency this weekend will be Bourgoin (17 consecutive defeats) and the Italian trio of teams, collectively winless since this round two years ago.
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