Only seven other sides remain in contention for the last four slots. These include former winners, Wasps, Leicester, Stade Francais and Northampton, while Castres, Sale and Neath Swansea Ospreys all retain a mathematical chance of advancement.
Given Thomond Park’s romantic attachment to this competition since inception, it is only fitting that the final game in the stadium as we know it promises to be a cracker.
It is a measure of how difficult it is to win this tournament that Munster, despite an unblemished five wins from five in the pool, could slip from its current position as third seed to bottom of the pile in eighth. That would almost certainly result in a return visit to San Sebastian for a meeting with last season’s defeated finalists, Biarritz.
As Ronan O’Gara said on Sunday, Munster specialise in doing things the hard way.
While many were surprised at Munster’s tactical approach against Bourgoin on Sunday, Declan Kidney’s side have looked to attack the opposition with ball in hand on a consistent basis this season. Remember the Magners League game against Leinster over Christmas when Munster ran everything in the opening half? On that occasion, perhaps prompted by Frankie Sheehan’s sin binning just prior to the break, they reverted to type with a more direct approach in the second half.
Munster have the ability to play the off-loading game which Ireland has developed so successfully over the past 12 months. It is a question of getting the balance right. Whether influenced by the perfect weather conditions on an excellent surface, after all the wind and rain in November and December, Munster attempted to run out of danger on too many occasions.
Defensively Bourgoin were very well organised and put severe pressure on O’Gara. In this respect Trevor Halstead’s physical presence was badly missed as a midfield target to get over the game line.
In many respects the challenge that Leicester now present is tailor made to generate the right response from this team. When backed into a corner, they always respond.
The Tigers, on the other hand will not have gained hugely from the non-competitive nature of their last two Heineken cup games against Bourgoin and Cardiff when the opposition lay down to such a degree that Tigers scored 14 tries and accumulated 91 points. Contrast that with the effort of those two sides when faced with the challenge of beating holders.
For years Munster thrived on the challenge of facing Europe’s premier names. Now it is a clear case of role reversal. Munster has become the biggest scalp of all and every opponent raises their game in an effort to defeat them.
Leicester has a proud record in this competition and will undoubtedly throw the kitchen sink at Munster on Saturday. Welford Road has a marked similarity to Thomond Park and as a consequence the Tigers may be less intimidated than other opposition at this venue.
Up front they will also offer a formidable challenge as they did in the opening encounter last October. In this respect the lineout will be central to the outcome. In Welford Road, Leo Cullen, Ben Kay and Martin Corry applied severe pressure on the Munster throw and will look to repeat that pressure on Saturday. Munster will have to be far more clinical in their execution on this occasion. Overall the battle up front promises to be exhilarating as two full international packs battle for supremacy.
If Munster are to win this game, then it is vital that they maximise the clear advantage they hold at half back. While O’Gara and Peter Stringer were put under severe pressure in Geneva, their form all season has been outstanding. With Andy Goode on the injured list, Leicester must decide whether to continue with David Humphreys’ brother Ian, who played last Saturday, but retired with a hamstring strain. With Paul Burke also injured, coach Pat Howard has a big call to make. Regular full back Sam Vesty has played at No 10 before but has limited experience in the position.
Overall, the desire to maintain that unbeaten 26-match run in Thomond Park and the quest to secure a home draw should be sufficient to sign off this year’s pool stage unbeaten for the first time.
Leinster also face a huge challenge when travelling to Kingsholm on Friday night. As group winners, even defeat will not drop them below a sixth seeding but they are all too aware of the importance of generating a home tie that a victory will guarantee.
The playing style of this Gloucester side will suit Brian O’Driscoll’s team. When Munster lost in Kingsholm in 2002 and 2003, Gloucester played an intense forward-oriented game and took Munster on at source. Nowadays with some of the most promising young backs in the English game, they like to run.
This could well play into Leinster’s hands as they thrive in an unstructured environment. Leinster were comfortable winners in the opening game of the pool and if anything have got stronger since then. At times, however, one feels they almost feel a compulsion to entertain and take unnecessary risks. This is less prevalent on the road. Michael Cheika also needs to address his side’s capacity to concede too many penalties. This will prove more costly when the tournament reaches the knockout stages.
With so many of the Leinster backs on the top of their game at the moment and their forwards improving as a unit with every outing, Leinster have the capacity to win this one.