Ireland broke new ground this weekend with three teams through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, and for Munster and Leinster there is the huge bonus of a home draw at that stage. Ulster are certain to face one of them, depending on how today's games play out, and the likelihood is that they will have to travel to Thomond Park.
Munster produced a staggering second half performance against Saints in Milton Keynes last night to top the seedings with a 100 per cent record in Pool 1.
Despite struggling for form en route to this point they blew Saints away with wing Simon Zebo picking up a hat-trick. It was the second time Northampton have faced demolition in the second half by an Irish team, having been emptied by Leinster in the second period in last season's final in Cardiff.
Shell-shocked Northampton coach Jim Mallinder didn't try to hide his admiration. "We were competing against one of Europe's best sides and, while we did well in Munster and could easily have won, today we came second best," he said.
"What they did very well was slow us down in the contact area. We couldn't get on the front foot and get the ball wide. They have a good chance now. They raised their game and I thought they were very good."
Ulster went close to making it three Irish pool winners when they ran Clermont to four points in Stade Marcel Michelin. They lost out on top spot thanks to a 2-1 try deficit over the two legs -- and that second try was a source of controversy with Nathan Hines running an illegal block for the score.
"We came here wanting to get a home quarter-final for our fans and I think that's why we're exceptionally disappointed because we felt in the first half we maybe had a couple of opportunities," coach Brian McLaughlin said afterwards.
"We missed a couple of penalties difficult as they were but we had a couple of try-scoring opportunities which we left out there. When you're playing in a competition like this -- exciting as it is -- you just can't afford to do that."
The quarter-final match up will be finalised this afternoon when Saracens travel to Treviso, and both Edinburgh and Cardiff are home to London Irish and Racing Metro. Leinster chased the bonus point against Montpellier at the RDS earlier in the day, hoping to get top seeding, but came up short.
"We're in a home quarter-final is the over-riding verdict," said Joe Schmidt after his team had overcome a full-strength Montpellier. There were injuries to Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Seán O'Brien but all were declared fit to join up with the Ireland squad. As expected Jonny Sexton, who had been named in the side, withdrew an hour before kick off after picking up an injury in Glasgow last weekend. He too will hook up with his Ireland colleagues this week.
"The process was pretty pleasing to be honest," Schmidt said. "When you get the wind, as strong a wind as it was today, you feel a little pressure to get some sort of advantage and I thought we were pretty clinical.
"There was a mix of the flasher stuff and the real roll-your-sleeves-up stuff. Those two things gave us the half-time advantage and it was fantastic to score right after half-time. In the last 20, 30 we weren't as clinical but there was some really good endeavour.
"It's nice to have a little momentum," he added. "We've put a good few results together even if they haven't all been great performances. We've just got to bide out time now, watch the Six Nations and hope the guys come out of that fully fit. In the meantime, play a bit of Pro 12 and maintain our standards there."
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