We have, unfortunately, become too used to the word “crunch” over the last 12 months, but at least on this occasion it can be used in a much brighter context.
Usually in the Heineken Cup you have to wait until the last round to find out exactly who will qualify for the knockout stages, but this season it is quite possible that the majority of the groups will be settled a week early. This weekend, Round Five is very much the “crunch” for many of the teams aspiring to European glory.
Munster have sailed far closer to the wind than they would have liked, but still manage to be in pole position. As Ulster demonstrated in such emphatic fashion a fortnight ago, victory for Munster at Thomond has proved more difficult this season than ever before. A last minute win against Montauban in the opening game and an incredible last 10 minutes against a 14-man Clermont has once again put their destiny in their own hands.
However, it will be a confident Sale squad that arrives in Limerick. They have several world class players in the likes of Luke McAllister and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, a good balance between forwards and backs, and with several players moving on next season, such as the irrepressible Sebastian Chabal, they will be keen to go out on a high.
Two further incentives are that they owe Munster for beating them at home earlier in the competition and, secondly, if they can secure victory, who knows what sort of Clermont team will arrive at Edgeley Park next week for Sale’s final match.
Already out of the competition, their selection and minds will undoubtedly be on domestic affairs in the French Top 14.
However, Munster know what they have to do, and with much to prove to themselves and their supporters, it would be a brave man to bet against them.
Leinster have never been short of self-belief, but too often in the Heineken Cup they have succumbed to the pressure of the moment and underperformed.
Their campaign got off to a perfect start with a bonus point victory away against Edinburgh and was followed up by a ruthless swatting of the London Wasps. However, they are struggling for form and lately haven’t been as emphatic either in attack or defence.
They meet a Wasps side, also struggling for consistency and quality of performance, but hell bent on revenge at Twickenham. It’s a massive test for Leinster, for whom a victory will not only see them qualify but also maybe answer a few questions about their big-match temperament.
Ulster are already out of the running for the knockout stages, they too have much to prove, if only to the players themselves. Despite going down to Harlequins at the Stoop, the match marked a further stage in their rebuilding process. Three tries against a quality side proved that gaps could be found and exploited, and the defence for the most part was strong.
However, the game was also a lesson in what happens when you make mistakes and give even an inch of space against the top sides. Mistakes mean points and Ulster paid dearly for their profligacy.
Without doubt, both Harlequins and Ulster are better sides than they were in mid-October. Coach Dean Richards must only just be regaining his breath, such was the drama conjured up in Harlequins’ last two back-to-back matches against Stade Francais. Confidence is riding high in the Harlequins camp and they will feel that, despite sitting mid-table in the Guinness Premiership, they have the talent and self-belief to do real damage in Europe.
In Will Skinner, they have an excellent young captain, who forms part of their dynamic back row, supported ably by international Nick Easter. Danny Care can cause huge problems around the fringes, while out wide there is frightening pace in the likes of Ugo Monye.
The real gem, however, is Kiwi import Nick Evans. What a signing he is proving to be. His kicking heroics in Paris were outdone by his direction of the 29 phases, which led to his last-second drop goal at The Stoop
Mathematics aside, he has effectively condemned Stade to another season of unfulfilled promise in Europe.
For Ulster, it is an opportunity to see just how far they have come since the last meeting of these two sides. What the fans will hope for is a performance which mirrors the intensity and ruthlessness exhibited in Munster.
Last week’s defeat in Edinburgh, though disappointing, was not wholly unsurprising, given the emotional hype and inevitable comedown after the Thomond Park victory. it was another lesson for this young side.
Nevertheless, while Ulster is beginning to rebuild its reputation in the Magners League, Saturday’s match affords the opportunity to once again make a bold statement to the rest of Europe about what it means to come to Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup.