Double Trouble

After a brief and extremely entertaining interlude of domestic action – more of Harinordoquy Pere and Saints-Leicester fisticuffs please – the HEC resumes with some mouth-watering double headers to look forward to.

The December home/away trysts tend to remove some of the fog from the HEC – from around 14 mixed contenders, you tend to end up with two teams with home quarter-finals more or less guaranteed, another two with qualification virtually in the bag, and a few teams eliminated from contention, leaving six or so to slog it out for the rest.

Last season, Munster never recovered from two stodgy showings against the Hairsprays, especially as Toulon beat London Samoa twice to take charge of the pool; and Leinster never looked back following two impressive performances to whack and bag Clermont, a team that had all but beaten them on their own patch the previous year.  That Leinster only won the head-to-head by a point underlines that it’s all about coming out on top, no matter how slight the margin.

Remarkably, in every pool, the top two meet back-to-back- the first time this has happened. Any team that does the double can expect to be firmly in the driving seat for qualification as a result, and a points split among the front runners could let one of the stragglers regain some initiative. So, what do we foresee?

Pool 1: We think a horrendous injury list in the back division is going to make a losing bp very hard to come by for Munster in Llanelli, and a winning one all but impossible the following week. Strangely, aloof and cranky though he is, Munster’s bete noir Romain Poite may come to their rescue here.  They might get an edge come scrum time and they’ll hardly be writing letters of complaint if the ruck area is slow and messy.  5-5 looks a safe bet, probably putting the Scarlets in poll position. If Castres give up completely, 9 points is possible for the Saints – and with a home game against Munster to come, they may not be dead yet.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘You write Munster off at your peril.’

Pool 2: We like Cardiff, but Embra have shown mightily impressive fortitude so far – there might be a trade of home wins here, and the prospect of a Scottish side being alive in January for the first time in forever. We’ll guess 5-5. The other two are gone we reckon, although Racing have three bps racked up already, so if they are interested, they might stay in contention by doing “Irish” twice.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Cardiff are riding the crest of Wales’ newfound positivity.’

Pool 3: Our away trip to Oooooooooooooooohh Bath with our better halves is causing huge excitement in Cordite Mansions. The Rec is a great ground, but hardly Fort Knox – anything but two wins for Leinster will be a surprise. The pool will be all but won by then, leaving the other three to fight out over an Amlin slot.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Oooohh, Bath will simply run it from anywhere.’

Pool 4: Leicester are top, but Clermont are in the driving seat. Clermont thrashed Leicester at home a few years ago, going 40 points up after 50 minutes (and nearly giving away two bps at the end) and the Tigers are unlikely to get anything from France. Welford Road is a different story, but Leicester aren’t the force of old – you could see a surprise …. 8-1 to Clermont. Ulster, meanwhile, need 10 points from Aironi to make up for the “lost” bp in Leicester – and they might only get 9.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Welford Road, what an impregnable fortress’

Pool 5: Sarries-Ospreys is the leaders battle, and a model for a 5-5 split, but what Biarritz do might have more bearing on the pool – the hard-fought (literally) win over Bayonne may have kick-started their season, and 10 points would not be a seismic shock, leaving them 1 win away from a quarter-final.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Once again, Biarritz have landed a plummy draw. How do they do it?’

Pool 6: Quins are in dreamland this season, but even one win over the mighty Toulouse would be a coup. Toulouse don’t tend to extend themselves in the group stages, but we just can’t see Quins beating them – 8-1 to Toulouse. Connacht really fancy a shock at home to Gloucester, and they might just get it. Rumours of Eric Elwood doing rain dances on Eyre Square are abounding. Revenge might be ugly next week, but Connacht won’t care – 6-4 to Gloucester, moral victory for Connacht.
Head-to-head cliche to avoid: ‘Toulouse, the aristocrats of Europe…’

Although we will probably be completely wrong, but won’t care while we hang out Barnesy in the Christmas Market. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhh!!

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