‘It’s the second last week of the pool stages, where the slim mathematical possibility of some teams staying in the competition are dashed and the slim mathematical possibility of other teams staying in the competition can be extended for another week. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be great.’
If Sky Sports were to prepare an epic slow motion montage for this week’s Heineken Cup matches, the above line would be the factually accurate, but not very catchy voiceover to accompany it. It’s strange they didn’t run with it. ‘The crucial final weekend’ line is the one that gets most of the attention, but this weekend is arguably more fascinating because we’ll soon learn who still has a sniff of an undignified final weekend scramble for qualification and who can go back to pretending they cared more about their domestic competition anyway. Plus, even if a team are making nice progress, the intense battle for the two best runners-up spots, clamber for the all important home draw in the quarter-final and overwhelming desire to avoid being featured in all those pointless final day ‘As It Stands’ tables means they need to keep going right until the end.
It’s fascinating because – a lot like a tiny scrum half trying to stop a marauding lock – some big names are just about hanging on in there. There’s a clear pattern, but equally it’s mostly still up in the air. Yeah, we’ve got our suspicions about how the last couple of weekends might go, but there are more than enough permutations and scenarios which could upset the apple cart of predictability. Case and point is Pool 4, where Ulster (still 5/1 to win the pool by the way) look to keep their noses in front of the snapping jaws of the Leicester Tigers and the snapping wallets of Clermont Auvergne. It would be no surprise if the big boys clicked into a higher gear and made the top two places their own, but beating the Ulstermen at Ravenhill is never a gimme and if they stave off the Tigers, they’ll have given themselves a great chance of progress.
The ’3 into 1, possibly 2, doesn’t go’ scenario is replicated in Pools 5 and 6. In the former, Saracens, Biarritz and to a lesser extent the Ospreys are all in the frame for progress, but after this weekend, at least one of them might be bumped out of that frame. In the latter, the picture is equally murky, with Harlequins’ shock win in Toulouse throwing the cat amongst any complacent pigeons who thought the French side would cruise into the last 8. Harlequins still have a job on their hands to claim the driving seat in the pool, but they’ve given themselves a chance. Mathematically it’s still possible for the Gloucester to win the pool, even if the more realistic assessment of that involves the words ‘slim and none’.
In pools 1 and 3, the Irish provinces of Red and Blue dominate proceedings, to the point where they enjoy some breathing space at the top. They could afford a slip-up and still claim qualification, but with home quarter-finals to be won, they’ll want to be as relentless as ever. Pool 2 is only slightly less interesting, but mainly because of the teams involved rather than the lack of a finely balanced scenario. Edinburgh look set to kick the notion that all Scottish sports teams are a bit rubbish in the nuts and have got themselves into a great position to become the first Scottish team to reach a Heineken Cup quarter-final in 8 years. As pointing to their cruel penalty shoot-out semi-final defeat of 2009 for all their ills is an excuse that’s wearing a bit at this stage, Cardiff Blues will be keen to top the group and reach the quarter-finals. We’re guaranteed drama, even if we know the quality isn’t of the highest order. A lot like an episode of Neighbours.
Yes, the Penultimate Warrior doesn’t sound as good as the Ultimate Warrior and cage fighting would be less popular if it was called the Penultimate Fighting Championship, but in this case penultimate is to be loved and appreciated.