Heineken Cup: Let’s beat Clermont and grasp the dream
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin isn’t doing sums or studying mathematical permutations any more.
Following the weekend’s Heineken Cup Round 5 matches he is in no doubt as to what is required if Ulster are to have the reward they seek, namely a home tie in the quarter-finals of European rugby’s showcase tournament.
“No point pretending otherwise; it’s a must-win game now,” was McLaughlin’s candid reaction to results elsewhere in tandem with his expectations of the final round of Pool-stage fixtures.
Clermont Auvergne, whom they play on Saturday, Edinburgh, Cardiff Blues, Toulouse and Harlequins all now pose a threat to Ulster’s survival.
Currently Ulster top Pool 4 with 19 points. Clermont, are second on 16 so defeat at the 18,000 capacity Stade Marcel Michelin — where the Frenchmen are unbeaten in 38 matches — would see Ulster, who have never won in France, pipped at the post in the race for top spot.
And while a draw would be enough to confirm McLaughlin’s side as Pool 4 winners, 21 points would make a home quarter-final highly improbable.
If Ulster lose but earn a bonus, Clermont would top Pool 4, leaving McLaughlin’s men second with 20 points, better than anything anyone — bar the winners — in Pools 1, 3 or 5 can now muster, but still in danger of losing out to runners in Pools 2 and/or 6.
Either Edinburgh or Cardiff Blues — joint-leaders of Pool 2 with 17 points apiece — will win that group, thereby guaranteeing their qualification.
That’s not the problem; it’s those finishing second who would then spell real danger should Ulster lose to Clermont.
Edinburgh host London Irish while Cardiff entertain Racing Metro, with both the home sides strongly fancied to win against opponents who have struggled throughout, witness a solitary victory apiece.
That would give both Edinburgh and Cardiff 21 points — 22 in the event of a bonus for scoring four or more tries.
And despite having to travel, the top two in Pool 6 — Toulouse and Harlequins respectively — are expected to beat Gloucester at Kingsholm and Connacht in Galway.
Toulouse have 18 points and Harlequins 16; victories would leave them with 22 and 20 — or 23 and 21 in the event of them scoring four or more tries.
Were Ulster to lose to Clermont but pick up a bonus, both sides would finish with 20 points. In such an eventuality, however, Clermont would get the verdict.
To date in Pool 4 they have scored 25 tries to Ulster’s 16. And their +142 points differential dwarfs Ulster’s +75. So there can be no arguing with McLaughlin’s view that only a win will do if.
A first-ever victory on French soil would see Ulster top the group with 23 points and give them a home date in the quarter-finals.
A draw would give them 21 points, which either Edinburgh or Cardiff can match or, worse still, better. Harlequins, too, could reach that tally by virtue of a bonus point win in Galway, though Ulster’s try-count and for-against points statistics are much superior to those of the English outfit.
But level-headed McLaughlin is keeping things simple.
“What it has come down to is the fact that we have to go to Clermont and win,” he said.
“They are a top-class side; any team that goes to Aironi and scores 82 points — as they’ve just done — is quality.
“And their home record is terrific, there’s no denying that.
“But we can’t dwell on those things.
“We know what we have to do and we just have to get on with it. We wanted to go into the last game in control of our own destiny and we’ve got that.”