Racing uncertainty gives Munster hope of qualifying
Published 18/12/2012 | 05:00
Just as it was in the final dramatic throes of Sunday's pulsating fourth-round tie in Watford, any one of three outcomes remain possible in a Pool 1 that is proving to be more gripping than any other in this season's Heineken Cup.
Despite Racing Metro's best – and worst – efforts to display indifference, hapless Edinburgh last Friday allowed the Paris side to pick up their second victory of the campaign, following their dramatic grappling of victory from the jaws of defeat against Munster in round one.
Remarkably, and as if to confirm that Munster and Saracens, at least, are separated by a cigarette-paper margin, this pair shared the same number of points (28) and tries scored (1) and match points (5) from their intensely claustrophobic fortnight's combat.
Little wonder that it seems more than likely that the qualification race will go right down to the wire, with all three teams harbouring hopes of making the last eight of the tournament.
Racing may be in second place and only two points behind Saracens, but the French side probably have the hardest run-in in the final two games, with a trip to Munster following a clash with Saracens in neutral Nantes.
Factor in Racing's interest in securing a play-off berth for the Top 14 – their priority despite coach Gonzalo Quesada's public utterances – and the enigmatic Parisiens, who face an unenviable league run in the next month, may be tempted to part interest in Europe.
Should that happen, Saracens would still emerge as favourites to top the pool as they wrested control of affairs on Sunday, and are currently holding a two-point lead.
But Munster, presuming they can take care of the wretched Edinburgh – semi-finalists last season! – perhaps with a bonus point to boot, would be primed for a best runners-up slot with victory at home to Racing in their final pool encounter at Thomond Park.
Depending on events elsewhere, particularly how keen Toulon are to maintain their unbeaten run when they face Montpellier on the last day, Munster could still have a say in whether Leinster can battle through their section as best runners-up.
No doubt, Saracens chairman Nigel Wray will cast a wry smile when Munster rest players over the Christmas break before their visit to Edinburgh – offering support to him and other English and French club owners regarding Heineken Cup reform.
English and French clubs are carving it up in terms of results at precisely the same time they want to carve up the competition in terms of profits.
Eight clubs – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Castres Olympique, Exeter Chiefs, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers, Montpellier, Racing Metro 92 and Toulon – achieved back-to-back victories in rounds three and four.
Three clubs have four wins going into rounds five and six – Harlequins, who lead the way in Pool 3 with 19 points, Clermont on 18 points in Pool 5, and Toulon also with 18 in Pool 6.
It is a timely coincidence that all are English and French. "It was interesting to note that most people one spoke to in Limerick considered their league, the RaboDirect, as being of little consequence, with automatic qualification for the Heineken Cup guaranteed and with no relegation," wrote Wray in Sunday's match programme.
"Hence they often get a low 6,000-7,000 crowd. That's a view shared by the English and French clubs. In addition, whenever anyone says it's not about money, what they mean to say is it is about money!"
Wray then once more waved the threat of South African involvement with a putative Anglo-French breakaway. Nevertheless, the Celts and Italians have done little to back up their strong off-field arguments with any of their efforts on the field.
Ulster, who have potentially ceded a home quarter-final, and Leinster, who know that no team has ever qualified for the knockout stages after losing both back-to-back games, both lost 12-game unbeaten home records in Europe on a bleak weekend for Irish rugby.
Meanwhile, Munster have virtually no wriggle room as they cast their minds towards January's concluding fixtures, the dates and times for which will be finalised tomorrow.
As Wian du Preez held an uncomfortable post-mortem on Sunday's defeat, he steadfastly kept reaffirming that he and his team-mates would have to consult the video.
After a testing afternoon for both himself and his front-row colleagues, Du Preez and Munster supporters know that Christmas is also a time for whipping out the calculators.
"The pool is still very close, with Racing also winning last Friday night," conceded Du Preez, as he ruefully reflected on two away games from which Munster could, and possibly should, have secured positive results.
"I think it will go down to rounds five and six. Saracens gave themselves a good chance on Sunday but we've still got two matches left to go. So yeah, we'll always be hopeful.
"That's the thing with all Heineken Cup matches, it's very small margins and it comes down to the team that takes their opportunities the best that is going to walk away with the win.
"Every game is a must-win now from our point of view in the next two matches. They are big – massive – matches. There are still opportunities in the next two games. Obviously we're very disappointed tonight, it was a huge match for both teams and Saracens walked away with the victory."
Remaining Pool 1 fixtures
Edinburgh v Munster, Murrayfield; Racing Metro 92 v Saracens, La Beaujoire Stadium, Nantes.
Munster v Racing Metro 92, Thomond Pk; Saracens v Edinburgh, Vicarage Rd.