The race for the prestigious eight Heineken Cup quarter-final places is entering the final straight – but 11 of the 24 teams in the 2010 / 2011 tournament will still be in elite European club rugby action come April.
While the six Pool winners and two best Pool runners-up will prolong their Heineken Cup adventure into the knock-out stages, the next three best Pool runners-up will join the five Amlin Challenge Cup Pool winners in the tournament’s quarter-finals.
With the incentive of an extended run in European competition, and the possibility of winning a coveted European title, there is bound to be an added edge to the final 24 Heineken Cup Pool fixtures.
Last season’s innovation which led to three Heineken Cup teams doing battle with the pick of the Amlin Challenge Cup sides was a resounding success with the record-breaking final in Marseille ultimately won by a Heineken Cup starter – Cardiff Blues – against an Amlin Challenge Cup starter, Toulon.
“The anticipation is always great at this time of the year before the qualifiers for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals are revealed, but for a second season the calculations will have an added edge with three more teams going through to the last eight of the Amlin Challenge Cup,” said ERC Chief Executive Derek McGrath.
“The four top-ranked sides from the five Amlin Challenge Cup Pools will have home advantage over their Heineken Cup rivals and the quality of those games once again promises to be of the very highest standard.”
Last season the Blues, Gloucester Rugby and the Scarlets were the Heineken Cup representatives who went into the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals, so there is still all to play for among those teams who might not make the Heineken Cup last eight.
And while Pool 6 is a two-horse race between Toulouse and London Wasps, things could hardly be tighter in Pools 3 and 5 where just three points separate the top three teams.
In Pool 3, the battle is between Toulon (13 points), Munster (11 points) and the Ospreys (10 points) while in Pool 5, the Scarlets lead the way on 15 points followed by Leicester Tigers on 13 points and Perpignan a further one point adrift.
Tournament newcomers Toulon – who have beaten the Ospreys 19-14 and London Irish 38-17 at Stade Felix Mayol – now face the acid home test in the shape of former double champions Munster on Sunday afternoon while the Ospreys, who have yet to win on the road this season, must beat London Irish at the Madejski Stadium to stay in contention.
In Pool 5, Leicester Tigers and Perpignan have away day targets at the Scarlets and Benetton Treviso respectively while the two sole surviving 100 per cent teams, Northampton Saints in Pool 1 and Toulouse in Pool 6, both enjoy home advantage.
HEINEKEN CUP 2010 / 2011 – ROUND 5
(All kick-offs LOCAL time)
FRIDAY 14 JANUARY, 2011
Pool 1 Cardiff Blues v Castres Olympique 19.30 Andrew Small (E)
Pool 1 Northampton Saints v Edinburgh 20.00 Christophe Berdos (F) Sky Sports
Pool 2 ASM Clermont Auvergne v Racing Metro 92 21.00 Wayne Barnes (E) Canal+
SATURDAY 15 JANUARY, 2011
Pool 2 Leinster v Saracens 13.30 Romain Poite (F) Sky Sports / RTE*
Pool 4 Bath Rugby v Aironi Rugby 14.30 Neil Paterson (S)
Pool 4 Ulster Rugby v Biarritz Olympique 15.30 Nigel Owens (W) Sky Sports / FR2 / RTE*
Pool 5 Benetton Treviso v Perpignan 14.30 Alan Lewis (I) Sky Italia / Rugby+ / Canal+
Pool 5 Scarlets v Leicester Tigers 17.45 Alain Rolland (I) Sky Sports
Pool 6 Toulouse v Newport Gwent Dragons 14.30 Peter Fitzgibbon (I) Canal+
SUNDAY 16 JANUARY, 2001
Pool 3 Toulon v Munster 16.00 Dave Pearson (E) FR2 / RTE*
Pool 3 London Irish v Ospreys 15.00 George Clancy (I) S4C* / Sport+**
Pool 6 Glasgow Warriors v London Wasps 13.00 James Jones (W) Sky Sports / Rugby+
** Delayed (i) Red button