Tyrone Howe: It’s all hotting up in the battle to qualify
With all the difficulties that the weather has presented over the last fortnight, it almost feels like we have fast-forwarded to Round 5 of the Heineken Cup without much in between.
It was something of a logistical triumph that all the fixtures in the previous round were completed.
Arguably, Ulster bore the brunt of the disruption. The advantage of playing Stade Francais away from their home environs of Stade Jean-Bouin was wiped out as sub-zero temperatures in Brussels meant a move to the slightly warmer, or at least less cold, climes of Paris.
As always in the competition, much in theory can be decided this weekend should results fall a certain way.
At the start of the competition, I selected Clermont Auvergne as my favourites for the tournament.
This was a bullish move as their qualification group includes both the Leicester Tigers and the Ospreys. At a quick glance I look to be in a precarious position as the French currently hold third place. Indeed, if the Ospreys win and Leicester lose, the Welsh side will be guaranteed to top Pool 3. Keep the faith, my friends, all is far from lost.
While it seems to be advantage Ospreys, the Welsh outfit has by far the toughest run-in — Clermont away and Leicester at home. In reality, the pool still lies in the hands of the French team. Their last gasp losing bonus point against the Tigers in Round 4, courtesy of the boot of their star outhalf Brock James, gives them the edge.
We have become used to rousing matches at the Stade Marcel Michelin in this competition as Clermont have battled impressively with teams like Munster in the past. Before completely taking their foot off the gas and almost coming unstuck, they were magnificent against the Tigers before Christmas.
The home of Michelin will come alive with passionate expectation if the team can defeat the Ospreys this Friday. It would not clinch qualification, but with Italian minnows Viadana away in their final match, pole position could beckon for a team that, on its day, plays brutally beautiful rugby.
It is amazing that Munster, despite their early season dip in form, seem to be timing their run perfectly once again.
Pool 1 can also be decided this weekend if Munster can win with a bonus point in Treviso and Northampton lose at home to Perpignan. Looking at the form of the two home sides, you would get long odds on either result working out, never mind both. Treviso produced the shock of the first round by beating French champions Perpignan and proved a tough nut to crack for Northampton in Round 4.
The scrum will be interesting to watch — Munster struggled against Northampton, who were subsequently put under enormous pressure by Treviso, leading to the question of how will Munster fare against the power of the Treviso front row?
Munster produced one of the most complete performances of their European history by achieving that scintillating bonus point victory over Perpignan in the last round. Surely Treviso will be an easier prospect? I’m not so sure and believe that Munster coach Tony McGahan would be more than happy with a solid victory and four points.
The defending champions Leinster are part of the conundrum in Pool 6 along with London Irish. This is the only qualifying group which does not have the possibility of producing a decisive pool winner after the next round of matches.
This is magnificent for the competition as what it does guarantee is a mouth-watering encounter in a week’s time. It almost makes you want to fast forward another seven days.
What am I saying! You simply do not want to miss the rugby and entertainment on offer this weekend.