By Gavin Mortimer
TWO ROUNDS gone and four to go in the group stage of the Heineken Cup, and while some clubs are looking good others (no names mentioned, Edinburgh) are still looking for a point – any point. And the French clubs? There’s been the odd French farce but in the case of Toulon and Clermont it’s been nothing but force.
Pool One: Racing Metro’s 30-13 defeat to Saracens in Brussels leaves the Parisian outfit five points behind leaders Sarries but the French side still have an outside chance of making the quarter-finals. Back to back matches against pointless Edinburgh await Racing in December, while Saracens and Munster slug it out on successive weekends. “It’s not over,” said Racing’s Argentine centre Fabrice Estebanez when asked about their prospects of reaching the last eight. “We have great hopes, we must convert these [into victories].”
Pool Two: Toulouse top the pool having followed up their win over Leicester with a 33-21 victory away in Treviso. It wasn’t a convincing display from the four-time Heineken Cup winners, reinforcing the view that Toulouse may struggle to open up quality sides in the knockout phases of the competition. At half-time Toulouse trailed Treviso 18-9 but three tries in ten minutes midway through the second-half saw them home – though at a heavy price. Captain Thierry Dusautoir is out for several weeks with a knee ligament injury, and hooker Gary Botha, No 8 Louis Picamoles and prop Gurthro Steenkamp also picked up heavy knocks. Toulouse host Ospreys on December 8 before heading to Wales the week after in a pool that remains open. The Ospreys and Leicester are on five points, three behind Toulouse who have failed to collect any bonus points.
Pool Three: No surprises on Saturday as Biarritz easily overcame Italian side Zebre 38-17 in a match played in appalling conditions. The win broke a run of five consecutive defeats for the Basque club who lie second in the pool, four points behind Harlequins. Next up in the Heineken Cup is a trip to Connacht on December 7, a match Biarritz must win if they’re to have any hope of catching Quins.
Pool Four: Castres dented Northampton’s chances of qualifying for the last eight with a 21-16 win over the Saints. According to coach Laurent Travers the victory was a slap down to critics who had damned Castres for sending a weakened team to be thrashed by Ulster the previous week. “This was for those people who said that Castres didn’t deserve to be in the Heineken Cup,” he said. “The players wanted to give their response on the pitch.” They gave their response all right, but which Castres will travel to Glasgow on December 7? Will it be the up-for-it version or the out-of-it version?
Pool Five: Clermont are in control of this pool, the only side in the competition so far to have taken a maximum ten points from the opening two rounds. Having collected a bonus point in their rout of the Scarlets on the opening weekend, Clermont did the same at Exeter despite a valiant first-half performance from the English side. The 46-12 victory leaves Clermont two points clear of Leinster with the two heavyweights squaring up in December on successive weekends. Leinster must travel to France for the first encounter on December 9 before Clermont head to Dublin the following week, and Clermont coach Vern Cotter can’t wait. “Two years ago we were a little bit affected by the atmosphere [in the Aviva Stadium] and the occasion got to us,” he said. “This time we’ll have been warned.”
Pool Six: Toulon dominate the last of the pools after they backed up victory over Montpellier with a solid if unspectacular win in Cardiff. “It wasn’t our best match of the season,” conceded coach Bernard Laporte, “but we’ve achieved what we wanted. We’ve practically eliminated a rival for qualification and our objective of reaching the last eight is nearer.” Toulon’s 22-14 victory means they are five points clear of French rivals Montpellier in second place and a trip to Sale on December 8 shouldn’t be too daunting for Laporte’s side given the way the Sharks capitulated 33-18 to Montpellier.