As the pool stages resume at their customary breakneck speed, discontent is still simmering in the provinces over the IRFU’s recently announced guidelines on overseas players, which will leave the likes of Botha unable to renew their contracts when they expire.
That should provide an interesting backdrop to the contributions of the imported talent and added incentive to prove their worth to Irish rugby if any were needed as Botha’s Munster, Nacewa’s Leinster and Muller’s Ulster all chase victories this weekend which will move them within reach of the European knockout stages.
After unbeaten starts to their respective group campaigns, Munster and champions Leinster are, alongside English club Saracens, able to clinch automatic quarter-final qualification in this weekend’s Round 5 matches, while Ulster lead their pool by two points over Leicester, the side they host at Ravenhill on Friday night.
Munster, the only team in the competition with a 100% record after four matches, can guarantee top spot in Pool 1 with a bonus-point victory over Castres at Thomond Park on Saturday and the French side’s already shaky-looking commitment to their European campaign was further undermined at the weekend. Having surrendered meekly to Northampton Saints in a 45-0 drubbing at Franklin’s Gardens in Round 4 last month, Castres signalled a return to prioritising the French Top 14 as the season’s objective. Yet having arrested a five-match losing domestic run with a win over Perpignan, Castres’ misery returned as they leaked six tries in Paris in a 38-21 defeat to Stade Francais. That heavy loss saw them drop to fourth place in the Top14 and into a dogfight for an end of season play-off spot.
And that can only mean the Heineken Cup meaning even less to the French side as they head to Limerick.
That is good news, of course for Munster, who will also be guaranteed a 13th quarter-final berth if they record a non-bonus-point win and nearest rivals Scarlets lose to a resurgent Saints side in Llanelli on Saturday.
With a final game at a Northampton outfit looking for revenge after Ronan O’Gara’s drop-goal heroics, Tony McGahan’s side will be looking to qualify at the earliest opportunity.
In Pool 3, a win of any kind at Glasgow Warriors on Sunday will be enough to ensure the European champions of qualification. Leinster are six points clear, an opening draw in Montpellier the only dropped points of the campaign, but second-placed Glasgow’s 38-13 loss at the RDS in Round 2 touched a raw nerve, and having already beaten Bath and Montpellier at Firhill, Sean Lineen’s team are looking to complete a perfect home campaign.
“That defeat in Dublin was hugely disappointing but we do not need any additional motivation for Sunday other than that we will be playing the current European champions — and knowing that right now, they are in outstanding form,” head coach Lineen said. “Leinster’s overall game is pretty much complete and they are tremendously physical at the breakdown. They also make the right decisions across the board and Jonny Sexton makes them even that little bit more special.”
Ulster’s destiny in Pool 4 cannot be decided this weekend yet the chances of helping to make it three Irish provinces in the last eight for the first time in the competition’s history will be increased considerably if they can see off Leicester on Friday in Belfast.
The group is still a three-way battle between Ulster, Tigers and Clermont, whom Brian McLaughlin’s side must visit in Round 6. Ulster, therefore, need to capitalise on their pole position with a home win this weekend before their final showdown in France, with Clermont three points adrift of the Ulster men but facing Italian also-rans Aironi in Monza on Saturday.
Despite some valiant efforts, Connacht’s interest in qualification is long gone but Eric Elwood’s side still has a say in the qualification shake up, starting with a trip to France this weekend to face the mighty Toulouse. The French Top14 leaders, who tuned up with a 51-10 trouncing of bottom side Lyon at the weekend, are just a point ahead of Harlequins on 13 points after the Londoners’ shock win at Toulouse in Round 4. Quins host Gloucester, still in the mix in third on nine points, this weekend and travel to Galway for Round 6, while Gloucester host Toulouse on the last day.
Like Munster and Leinster, Saracens can win their Pool with a game to go if they can clinch a bonus-point victory at Vicarage Road over Biarritz and deny the visitors a losing BP. A win for the French side, though, will throw Pool 5 wide open heading to Round 6, when third-place Ospreys travel to Biarritz and Sarries go to Treviso.
Pool 2 is wide open with Edinburgh and Cardiff tied on 13 points and London Irish still in contention with matches against the top two to come. Racing Metro host Edinburgh in Paris on Friday night with London Irish hosting Cardiff on Saturday.