Mystic Egg (Chasing)

Predicting the winner of the HEC from the off is folly, given the importance of home advantage in the knock-out stages. For example, Northampton rode a powder puff 6-0 pool last year to advance all the way to the final via home games with Ulster and Perpignan.

At least the Saints earned a home quarter – the semis are literally a lottery. Of the last 4 semi-finals, arguably all would have gone the other way if played in the oppositions “home” venue. So, even at this stage, it’s something of a fools errand, but sure, let’s crank up the crystal ball anyway.

Pool 1

What to say? Munster are the only team left that are 4 from 4, but they have been pretty poor by their own standards. It’s arguable that without Paulie and Rog (and better kicking coaches at opposition teams), they could be 0 from 4. They just know how to get over the line. We think they will beat a disinterested Castres and probably secure a bonus point, but lose in Franklins Gardens. Saints may be out, but they’ll be up for that game.  Scarlets should win twice, but with no extras. We think it’s:
Munster 22
Scarlets 19

Pool 2

The Group of Dearth at the start, but it’s shaping up to be a very interesting finish, thanks to the rejuvenation of Scottish “club” rugby (more of which anon). Tim Visser has Embra have done well to get three wins, but one of those was in rather farcical circumstances. It’s one thing to beat Racing 95-94 at home, but winning away? Nah. We fancy Cardiff to go to Fortress Reading and come away with a win, and then hockey Racing in the last game.
Cardiff 22
Embra 17

Pool 3

Its been all Leinster so far. As expected, a tough opener, but afterwards they have had it more or less their own way, opening a serious can of whoooooooooooooooooooohhhp-ass on Bath at the weekend. Glasgae have been nothing if not brave, helped in their second-chasing endeavours by Montpellier giving up. Leinster should get 9 more points roysh, and a home win and a losing bp in Beautiful Bath will get Glasgae second place, but no cigar.
Leinster 25
Glasgae 15

Pool 4

Tighter than the proverbial Kiwi duck’s butt – and as expected, it’s going to come down to bonus points. On that score, Clermont are in control – Leicester “lost” one away to Aironi and in Clermont, and Ulster lost one in Leicester. Ulster will come away empty handed from the Michelin, and will probably get their hoops handed to them as well. If they beat Leicester by more than 7 at home, second is theirs, but even if Marshall and Pienaar are the halves, Leicester are dogs and know how to tough it out.
Clermont 21
Leicester 18 (ahead of Ulster on head to head)
Ulster 18

Pool 5

Sarries have done some very hard work with a tough win in Osprey-land, but with Biarritz having picked up 4 bonus points so far, they still need to beat them and possibly Treviso away to ensure passage. They will do both, very narrowly, and progress. Biarritz will get 6 more points.
Saracens 23
Biarritz 18

Pool 6

Quins threw the tournament wide open (and forced Gerry to praise English rugby, albeit between gritted teeth) by winning in the toughest club venue in Europe (except the Aviva? Discuss). Still, Toulouse are in the saddle here, they should swat Connacht aside and although not a fait accomplis, they should win in Gloucester to go through as winners. Quins will beat Gloucester, possibly with a bonus point, and should win in Galway without one.
Toulouse 22
Harlequins 21

So, we have the eight quarter-finalists ranked as follows, bearing in mind it will come down to tries scored to seperate ties:

Leinster 25
Saracens 23
Toulouse 22
Munster 22
Cardiff 22
Clermont 21
Harlequins 21
Scarlets 19

Munster are currently two tries ahead of Cardiff – if they get the bonus point against Castres, they should maintain that advantage, but not overtake Toulouse. Amazingly, if the Scarlets slip up, Biarritz are in pole position to take advantage – the nous to scoop up bonus points while playing badly is worth its weight in gold in Europe (Asterisk Miracle Match).

The quarters will then be:

Four home wins I hear you say? Even predicting this far ahead once the quarter-finalists are decided is fraught with peril – there’s a whole Six Nations in between so things can look very different when the Heiny resumes.  You’d still fancy Leinster to take Scarlets and Munster would most likely have the Mental to grind down Cardiff and should win. Toulouse-Clermont – mouth-watering, Toulouse to edge it. Sarries-Quins will depend on how the sides are motoring at the time in the Premiership … and where their prioirities lie.

Note, our eight quarter-finalists at the beginning were Northampton, Cardiff, Leinster, Clermont, Biarritz, Toulouse, Leicester, Saracens – so if we’re right this time, last time we’ll have called five from eight. Meh.  But, y’know, we’ll probably be wrong again.


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!!