Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Classy Ulster Rugby sitting pretty in Europe

Mark Anscombe has led Ulster to four wins out of four in the Heineken Cup
Mark Anscombe has led Ulster to four wins out of four in the Heineken Cup

With only two games to go before we move towards Europe's last eight – and those encounters are coming next month – no better time to take stock of what the situation is across all six Heineken Cup pools.

And taking a cursory glance at each group things are looking pretty good for the Irish teams, bar Connacht, with Ulster, Leinster and Munster all currently topping their groups, though Leinster will not be feeling particularly pleased with themselves after Northampton Saints exacted revenge on them at Lansdowne Road in last Saturday's return game.

Thanks to their 10-point haul from both clashes with Treviso, Ulster are blazing a trail in Europe at the moment and are the only unbeaten side in the competition.

Not bad, and they have also amassed more points than any other team (18) and have racked up more scores (130 points from four games) while their defence has also been the meanest around as well having conceded only 27 points.

So all is then looking good then for Mark Anscombe and his squad to not only make the quarter-finals for the fourth consecutive time but, crucially, also secure what has eluded them lately, namely a last eight game at their Ravenhill home.

Well, it is perhaps a somewhat illusory situation as Ulster managed to get a badly misfiring Treviso on two successive weekends which have brought Anscombe 83 points from their two thumping victories. Still, for all that, they are in a strong position and have control of the group.

But things could have worked out a whole lot better had Montpellier not conceded that last-gasp try on Sunday to Leicester Tigers, allowing Richard Cockerill et al breathe a huge sigh of relief as his squad are now tucked in three points off Ulster with the last weekend before the knock-out stages now shaping up to be a shoot-out between Ulster and the Tigers at Welford Road to decide the destiny of the pool.

Even if Ulster lose this titanic looking clash at Leicester, they could still get through to the last eight, if Montpellier are beaten the week before at Ravenhill, as one of the two best runners-up who proceed onwards, but that would again deny them the opportunity of a home quarter-final and would be quite a kick in the teeth from where Ulster are now.

Anyway, these are all 'ifs and buts' and the Heineken Cup usually throws up quite a few curve balls before the pool stages are put to bed and indeed evidence of this was seen last weekend, as Ryan Lamb's try for the Tigers secured the eighth away win of round four.

Leinster know that they have made life a bit more difficult for themselves than they would have anticipated after losing 18-9 to the Saints – and this a week after they hockeyed them 40-7 at Franklin's Gardens – but crucially Matt O'Connor's men remain in control of their own destiny and can still come out top in pool one if they beat Castres away and the Ospreys – admittedly a bit of a bogey side for them – at home.

Even so, their chances of nailing down a home quarter now look rather more remote after that costly defeat on Saturday, which didn't even yield them a losing bonus.

Munster are in a much more healthy state though, and their dramatic 18-17 win at Perpignan, courtesy of JJ Hanrahan's sensational try, coupled with Gloucester's surprise defeat at home to Edinburgh has given them a five point lead at the top of Pool Six.

Elsewhere, holders Toulon are in pole position in Pool Two after coming away from Exeter with a positive result and the French giants will be confident of dealing with the unexpected threat of Cardiff Blues – who are a mere two points adrift and got the better of them in round two – when they host the Welsh in the next round of games, though they maybe ought to bear in mind Toulouse's shock home defeat to Connacht in round three.

And as for Toulouse, the four-time winners sit level with Mark McCall's Saracens in Pool Three and, even with that seismic reversal to Connacht being avenged at the weekend in Galway, this group looks like it will hinge on who comes out better in the next round when the French host Sarries.

Pool Four looks to be in Clermont's control as even with the next up game at Harlequins – who are four behind – last year's beaten finalists host Jonny Sexton's malfunctioning Racing Metro in the last round.

Rest assured of one thing, though, the Heineken Cup will still have a sting in the tail for a few sides. So, fasten your safety-belts there is likely to be some turbulence before all is sorted out.

And remember, assume nothing until the final ball in the final pool game is kicked dead.

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