Andy McGeady | Heineken Cup preview
Desperation is a powerful force. By Sunday evening at least four teams will have all but confirmed they won’t get out of their Heineken Cup pool. There’s some very big names on the brink including two of the top five pre-season favourites (Clermont and Leicester), Munster and the many-Lioned Ospreys.
1. The Desperation Derbies:
- Leicester vs Treviso (Fri)
- Zebre vs Connacht (Sat)
- Northampton vs Ospreys (Sun)
- Clermont vs Harlequins (Sun)
No team has ever lost their first two Heineken Cup pool games and gone on to qualify for a quarter final. Leicester, however, will think it unlikely they’ll be waking up to that possibility after this weekend, Richard Cockerill’s team being 1/40 favourites over Treviso. The Italians were in Leicester’s pool last season also, losing both pool matches against the Tigers by an aggregate total of just nine points. In that light, is their 22 point handicap generous?
Harlequins have a mountain to climb. Clermont are, to make somewhat of an understatement, a fairly tough proposition when playing at the Stade Marcel Michelin and their price of 1/50 to win reflects this. Harlequins’ Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea went ballistic after last week’s surprise home defeat to Scarlets and part of his exasperation will have been the knowledge that this impossible fixture was looming in the distance. Quins are 11/1 to snatch a win and save their Heineken Cup season. It would be a truly monumental effort.
2. Rich Man, Poor Man:
Cardiff, Perpignan, Glasgow and Munster face two-defeat doom with a second loss this weekend but unlike the games above they each face a team who already have a win under their belt.
- Cardiff vs Toulon (Sat)
- Munster vs Gloucester (Sat)
- Perpignan vs Edinburgh (Sun)
- Glasgow vs Exeter (Sun)
Each of the four losers is at home this week but, of those, the Blues are under by far the most pressure. After a defeat to Exeter in Round 1 where the Welsh team shouldn’t have bothered turning up until half time, such was their general uselessness in the first period, they are 10-point underdogs at home against champions Toulon. Even with Jonny Wilkinson having picked up a knock the tournament’s preseason favourites are now just 3/1 to retain their title after hammering a very capable Glasgow side.
Munster will have spent the week tuning up the patented Thomond Park Emotion Machine and are comfortable 1/6 favourites over Gloucester. Edinburgh’s impressive win over the Munstermen hasn’t impressed the bookies; the Scotsmen are 13 point underdogs for their visit to Perpignan.
3. The Battle for Control
Winning the first two matches doesn’t guarantee qualification but it’s a damnably fine start. Each of the next four games features two teams who each won their opening encounter and now have the opportunity to open up a gap in their pool between themselves and their direct opponent this weekend. Calling these “six-pointers”, to use soccer terminology, does them an injustice. They are eight-pointers, perhaps even 10-pointers if they’re feeling especially frisky.
- Saracens vs Toulouse (Fri)
- Leinster vs Castres (Sat)
- Montpellier vs Ulster (Sat)
- Scarlets vs Racing Metro (Sat)
Leinster will be hoping that their 1/16 price will be backed up by Castres playing the role of bad travellers and not the side that took the Top 14 title last June. There is no handicap in the Scarlets/Racing match; the two teams are 10/11 apiece even when Racing are coming off the back of a win against last year’s runner-up.
Montpellier, moving in from 33/1 to 22/1 for the tournament, are seven-point home favourites over Ulster despite the latter’s fine win over Leicester at Ravenhill. That handicap might seem odd since Ulster are 12/1 for the title themselves but Montpellier are tremendously powerful at home having thumped Clermont 43-3 and Toulouse 25-0 this season.
Toulouse travel to Saracens, not at shiny new Allianz Park but instead at Wembley Stadium.
Boy band sensations The Vamps play both pre-game and half-time shows. It’s a fair bet that the PA will be pumped up to 11 and the atmosphere will be more plastic than the Allianz Park pitch.
Having scored an average of 32 points per game in the Premiership while conceding just 15, both league-best marks, Saracens are deserved four point favourites. However, this Toulouse side have had the meanest defence in the Top 14 while leading the league in line breaks, defenders beaten and offloads.
Saracens will have got a fright from last weekend’s contest at the Sportsgrounds in Galway where Connacht came far too close to an upset for comfort. Home advantage counts for a lot in the Heineken Cup and, with a move to Wembley, Saracens may well have offered some of that precious advantage up to the twin altars of “marketing” and “brand”. Time will tell whether that sacrifice will come back to bite them.
- Betting: Scrum on down for all the weekend’s Heineken Cup action here