By Gavin Mortimer
IT’S THE half-way stage of the Heineken Cup and for the French clubs things are looking good. With three of the six pool matches gone, only Biarritz of the seven Top 14 teams look to have no hope of qualifying for the last eight. Their 22-14 defeat away at Connacht last weekend leaves the Basque outfit third in pool 6, nine points behind leaders Harlequins and three adrift of Connacht.
In Pool 1, Racing Metro have dragged themselves back into contention with a 19-9 defeat of Edinburgh. The Parisians are now third, two points behind Munster and Saracens, and the Londoners must travel to the French capital for their penultimate group game.
Pool Two could go down to the wire with Toulouse travelling to Welford Road on the weekend of January 19/20 to take on Leicester in the final group game. Following their easy victory over the Ospreys on Saturday, Toulouse are now three points clear of the Tigers who, like their French rivals, picked up a bonus point at the weekend by scoring five tries in their win over Treviso.
Both Toulouse and Leicester hit the road this weekend with the reigning French champions expecting a frenetic encounter at the Liberty Stadium. “At Swansea, we’re going to be confronted by almost a sevens-style rugby,” said coach Guy Noves. “As a result, we’re probably going to field a very defensive team.” To that end it’s expected that captain Thierry Dusautoir will make his long-awaited return from injury on Saturday – two months after injuring his knee in the win over Treviso – and veteran hooker William Servat is also likely to start against the Welsh side.
In Pool Four Castres have given themselves a glimmer of hope of qualifying for the last eight by winning 9-6 away at Glasgow. It wasn’t a pretty encounter, but the win means Castres are now in second spot, six points behind Ulster, whom they host in the last game of the group. In the meantime Castres welcome Glasgow to France this weekend with confidence beginning to grow in the squad. “We’re starting to understand the Heineken Cup,” explained captain Matthias Rolland, whose side had to overcome wintery conditions in Scotland. “You have to know how to deal with distractions and stay concentrated. Two or three years ago, the team would have been destabilised, too used to its own comforts, but now we have the experience to deal with it.”
Pool Five witnessed the clash of the Titans on Sunday with Clermont defending their three-year unbeaten home record against Leinster. It was the first defeat in 17 Heineken Cup matches for the Irishmen, a 15-12 loss that leaves them five points behind Clermont. But now Leinster get to welcome Clermont to Dublin on Sunday in a match that Julien Bonnaire expects to be ferocious. “We’ve got to maintain the same level of aggression and desire if we’re to get a result at the Aviva Stadium,” said the Clermont flanker, named man of the match after Sunday’s victory.
Toulon are the runaway leaders in pool six with three wins from three, their latest victory coming at Sale on Saturday evening. Montpellier, five points behind and in second, managed their first away win in two seasons of Heineken Cup rugby after beating Cardiff 35-24 on the road, and coach Fabien Galthie believes his side are now adjusting to the demands of the competition. “To put 35 points on Cardiff is fantastic,” he said. “Montpellier is a young club where everything is still to be written.”
As for Toulon, they won ugly in Sale but it was a victory that all but seals their place in the last eight. This weekend they host the Sharks in the return fixture, and next month Cardiff must travel to the Cote d’Azur. Win both of those games and Toulon are guaranteed of finishing top of their pool regardless of the outcome of their last match away in Montpellier.