Leinster ensured they topped their Heineken Cup pool last night and booked some sort of ticket to the quarter-final, but just what type of ticket will only become clear as the dust settles on the weekend’s games.
Getting a home quarter final is crucial in the Heineken Cup, from both the playing point of view and that of the moneymen in the background. It’s a whole lot of extra cash coming through the turnstiles, cash that no sane accountant should be counting on before the season starts.
Of serious interest to the wider rugby audience will be the meeting of Ulster and Leicester in the giant clash of this final round of pool games.
Ulster have run the boards so far in Pool 5, swatting away Treviso while thumping Montpellier home and away. Only Leicester stand between them and this season’s only perfect 6-0 record in the pool stages, but saying “only Leicester” is to underestimate one of this competition’s great traditional powers.
The Tigers are -3 favourites for Saturday evening’s match, kicking off at 6pm at Welford Road. Due to their riding roughshod over their mainland European pool opponents both Ulster and Leicester have already secured a quarter final place. But this match is all about trying to improve seeding for the quarter finals, especially trying to get one of those critical top four slots to avoid the possibility of having to travel to one of the French giants.
Leicester, as favourites to win, are 4/7 to get a home quarter final while the visiting Ulstermen are 13/10. Weep not, brave men of the north of the emerald isle, for a loss might be a blessing in disguise. In the history of this grand rugby tournament no team who has finished with a perfect six pool wins from six has carried on to win the title. Last season Clermont reminded us of that, defeated by Toulon in the final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Clermont are now favourites for this season’s title at 9/4 with French clubs Toulon and Toulouse at second and third favourites at 7/2 and 9/2 respectively. It’s a long way out from there to Leinster at 7/1, a Leinster team who (technically) could find themselves without a quarter final slot at all. In comparison, at 18/1 with a much more decent shot at a home quarter final Ulster look like a nice each way punt at this stage.
Glasgow are a funny side, capable of mixing physicality with no small amount of skill. Toulon’s visit to Scotstoun, featuring a pitch with two recent matches called off due to waterlogging, will be tough for the club seemingly name-dropped by every rugby agent on the planet to drive up media hype and worry about their player next due to test free agency. Toulon are 1/3 for the win that would secure a home quarter final draw but with a spread of just six points it should be a tight one for Jonny Wilkinson’s crew.
Connacht will travel to Saracens in an effort to steal a second miracle win from this year’s competition. Already having thrilled with their improbable win over Toulouse, a win on the artificial surface at Allianz Park would both knock Saracens out and put Connacht in with a still improbable chance of a quarter final place themselves.
Connacht are 20/1 to steal a win. If you’re travelling to the game it’s worth that miracle punt, if only to enliven the pre-match beer-fuelled dreams of what might be. For those sitting at home, less lively and more wary, possibly hung over from an overly large outing on Friday evening when “ah sure just the one” turned into Phonecall Home, Last Orders, ATM, Club, Takeaway and Taxi, taking Connacht at +22 looks the more sensible, boring option.