The Heineken Cup. If you’re Irish and a rugby fan - don’t you just love it?
Unlike the 6N where Ireland are generally less than the sum of their provincial parts with the Heineken Cup the provincial parts usually suggest a much better performing Irish team than we generally get to see. This year we have the full compliment of 4 provinces with Connacht qualifying for the first time.
Last week with Leinster and Munster both qualifying for the quarters finals it was Irish success as usual. But it was Ulster who were the real Irish heroes smashing Leicester 41-7 in what had been billed by most pundits as the tie of the round and for all the talk of Ulster’s foreign (South African) contingent Leicester had 10 overseas players in their squad and Ulster had only 5. Before the match those same pundits gave Ulster the edge – but ruled out a repeat drubbing for Leicester by anything like the margin of 33 points which was the margin of their defeat when they last visited Ravenhill in the Heineken cup. Well they were right it wasn’t a margin of 33 it was 34. Quite incredible.
So now to the final weekend of the pool stages of the competition. Having just demolished the English powerhouses of European rugby in the proverbial pool of death Ulster are now required to overcome Clermont in Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin on Saturday at 15.40 to avoid elimination in what is again the outstanding Heineken Cup match of the weekend. In fact Ulster can go through as pool winners with a defeat, provided is it by less than 5 points and they score the same number of tries as Clermont. Ulster can also progress as one of the two best pool runners-up even if they lose, but that is dependent on an unlikely slip up by one of Toulouse, Harlequins, Edinburgh or Cardiff.
In the handicap betting the bookies (Paddy Power) are giving Ulster a 12 point head start. For Ulster to win, even for this outstanding Ulster team to win, it is probably asking too much. Quite how Clermont have not won the Heineken Cup by now is a bit of a mystery - partially explained by the fact that as relative Johnny-come-latelies to the competition they initially suffered from poor seedings and then repeatedly found themselves in really difficult groups.
If Ulster fans want to lessen the pain of (probable) defeat they could do worse than have a punt on Clermont to win the competition at 7/1 (William Hill) which looks like really generous odds for a team packed with world class talent, including Rougerie, Parra, Vermuelen, Malzieu, Bonnaire, Sivivatu. Leinster at 15/8(William Hill) are the current favourites.
If Ulster can somehow win in Clermont then there will be no doubt that they win can the competition (for the 2nd time) and their odds will collapse from their current 50/1(William Hill).
But sadly I just can’t see it as Clermont have not lost at home in any competition since November 2009.