WE ARE now left with one last round in the Heineken Cup pool stages, with teams not so much balanced on a knife’s edge as trying to clamber onto the already heavily laden figure of Buckaroo.
It is not yet clear who will be tossed from the Cup. The mathematicians and point-watchers among us may well have their theories. No doubt there is a permutation we have not considered.
Ruthless sides Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins, Toulon and Ulster are all already through to the quarter-final, but a gamut of European behemoths are yet to rest easy and will have to wait until next weekend to learn their fate.
But before we get ahead of ourselves let’s look at the all-important games, ones that rose to the occasion and those that fell away in Round Five.
Ospreys and Leicester Tigers
A slobber knocker tantamount to the Klitschko brother’s fighting over an antique chess set, this drawn match delivered in terms of entertainment while also setting up a cracker of a pool finale at Welford Road, with Toulouse heading for Leicester.
The Ospreys may have failed to reach the last eight with a 15-15 result, and Leicester still have it all to do by beating Toulouse, but by not winning both sides won us over.
Kahn Fotuali’i buzzed around, sprinting beyond flailing Tigers and kicking his way out of tight spots. Justin Tipuric showed an Olympians lung capacity. Eli Walker showed he has real potential and Steve Mafi and Niall Morris quietly worked away as Tigers clawed back into the game.
This game was brimming with moments of brilliance, capped off by the opening try, which saw a scintillating break by Fotuali’i supplemented by a low-slung Tipuric pass and a jostling finish by Joe Bearman. One of the moments of the weekend.
France’s Wesley Fofana, a man so slick that I have serious doubts he has ever felt the wind, let alone known the touch of dirt, managed to score a similarly virtuoso try.
As his team effortlessly offloaded and poured past Exeter Chiefs, he was left on the right wing watching Regan King drift towards oblivion. The pair knew that this was merely a decoy, and in a millisecond King had pushed a perfectly weighted back-door delivery towards Fofana as he cut to his left, drew a defender, stepped again and took his five points gleefully. If this sounds classier than an episode of Downton Abbey recorded only for the Queen that’s because it was.
Clermont were able to fob off Exeter with relative ease and their squad looked unlikely to be damaged by the plucky Premiership side’s efforts. This is not to say that there’s no respect there. It is simply that Clermont have a quality that deserves to be in the farthest reaches of the Heineken Cup. Potential winners, don’t rule it out.
Quitting never seemed like a viable option for Saracens in this closely fought fixture against Racing Metro.
It finished 37-28 to Sarries and metronomic upstart Owen Farrell never faltered as he kicked 32 of the points. The fly half is now a favourite to circumnavigate England through the Six Nations, and if he can replicate the tenacity that saw Saracens clear in this match that for so long looked like it was Metro’s next week, then they should claim five pool points from Edinburgh.
Five points are not guaranteed. It is simply that any team able take a lashing for a half, accept their own limitations and adjust accordingly must be feared. Especially as they can cut loose, should the opportunity present itself.
Harsh as it may seem, by not scoring any tries at all in round five, let alone the vital bonus point four, Saints have made it almost impossible to qualify for the next round.
They defeated Castres 18-12. They toughed it out. They showed nerve. Yet they have not been as swaggering or, more importantly, as belligerent as they could have been. They are second in their table because they have won games, despite conceding more tries than they have scored. However, to be one of the best in Europe you need to do more than just win in the early rounds.
Much of the talk is about how they have two leaders in Ryan Lamb and Stephen Myler but what sees you right in the Aviva Premiership does not always see you right in the Heineken Cup. There is a glimmer of hope, but Saints need to do more than just win in the last pool match. They need to decimate Glasgow Warriors.
The Scottish and Welsh regions
There was not a single victory for any of the Scottish or Welsh regions in round five, and with the Ospreys failing to win against Leicester, despite their heroics, it means that there will be no representation from these sides in the knockout rounds.
Last season both Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh were in the quarter finals. This time round responsibility of representing the Celts falls to the Irish sides. The Scots and Welsh have fallen too far from their perches.