And why ? Well loads of reasons, like Edinburghperforming heroically in Pool 2, Mike Ruddock's Dragons confoundingall predictions in Pool 1, Cardiff adopting Romanian club form inPool 3, the Celts performing like real Warriors in the Pool 6 gameagainst Gatland's Wasps, Leinster throwing Sale a lifeline, Pool 3again, and ............ Munster failing to gain a bonus in theirPool 5 game with Gloucester. Oh and of course, Ulster, dumping firstStade Francais and then Leicester Tigers in Pool 1 Ravenhill clashes.
See how it should have worked out was this. First the pools with theItalian sides should have delivered the best runner-up which meantPerpignan and London Wasps through from Pool 6: Gloucester andMunster through from Pool 5; old reliables Llanelli - sorry LlanelliScarlets - from Pool 4; Leinster Lions winner all right in Pool 3;Toulouse by a distance in Pool 2 and after a dogfight, moneybagsStade Francais to edge out Leicester Tigers in Pool 1.
Grand job. Quarter final home draw for the holders Toulouse in numberone spot. Number two would be Leinster Lions who forgot they had toplay a semi-final before they'd be allowed win the final last year.In third spot Stade (please God don't give us Munster again) Francaisand in fourth Gloucester, rather than Perpignan, (the Chelsea of thisyear's competition).
Round one went to script, except in Rodney Parade where Ruddock'sDragons scorched Solomon's White Knights and except in Scotland wherethe Gunners totally lost the run of themselves and beat Brennan'sboy's, Toulouse. Elsewhere it was as you like it; Munster ground itout in Bourgoin; Biarritz came to Dublin for the shopping and forgotabout the game against Leinster and in Paris an official shotLeicester in the foot then handed the shotgun to a Leicester playerwho shot off their other foot.
No huge surprises in Round Two. Guzziani's Go Go Dancers went wentwent in Ravenhill, but Ulster went much better. Leinster did aMunster in Cardiff substituting grunt 'n grit for fast 'n fancy.Anthony Foley maintained his position as Munster's leading scorerrunning in two against Treviso and in the re-enactment of,"there'll always be an Engoland" Leicester set the (rugby)record right with a clear decision win over those Welsh upstarts from
And then in Round Three it all went sortof, pear-shaped.See this is what was choreographed.
Edinburgh v Leeds - Who cares Sharks to theslaughter in DublinAnything to happen in Kingsholm - butmainly to Munster for the their miracle audacityPaisley tosteal the headlines in Ravenhill and Ulster a point, if they wereluckyAnd after that ?Toulouse at home to three teams (Neath Swansea & The Ospreys ? ) -cinq point pour l'equipe de Guy NovesEt aussi a Biarritz againstles Bleues d'Cardiff.Northampton v The Who - Gimme Five for the SaintsTreviso v Bourgoin - Arravederci Treviso and finallyPerpignanski at home to Calvisano - Yeh right.
ExceptWell, the rot started on Friday in Lansdowne Road -yeh, yeh, we know - what an appropriate place etc etc - and all thatand continued unabated on Saturday when Treviso hammered the childrenBourgoin sent out to play; the Saints failed to gain a bonus againstthe Borders and Munster failed likewise in Kingsholm.
But it was the Sabbath when the cat was set amongst the pigeons withthree extraordinary results. Well two extraordinary results and onealmost incredible scoreline.
Whether the Reverend Ian intended to put a hex on or not, someone did and they put it on the heathen Leicester whoran onto the Ravenhill pitch as Tigers and slinked off some eightyodd minutes later cuffed and cowed, the journey pointless. Over inWales Ruddock's Rodney Parade unbeaten record held up against the glamour gits of StadeFrancais and in London Warren Gatland's all-singing, all dancingWasps had the sting taken out of them by the Celtic Warriors.
Round Four then, was the must-win round for Leinster, Leicester, London Wasps and Munster. Leinster did, in grim determined fashion; London Wasps did in similar mode; Leicester wiped the carpet with Ulster, probably inspired by the taunts that assailed their ears a week earlier in Ravenhill and Munster produced a performance that prompted a eulogy from Gloucester coach Nigel Melville in his Guardian column the following Wednesday.
In round five Stade Francais buried Ulster hopes by just 3 points (13-10) in Paris and Leinster spurned the chance to ensure their place in the quarters when they squandered a 17-3 lead and then were somewhat fortunate to scrape through, 20-17.Munster recovered from a decidedly iffy start to gain the bonus in Treviso while Gloucester went to France and took full points at very soon to be Saint Andre-less, Bourgoin. Philippe Saint-Andre, the Bourgoin coach had announced in the run up to the game that he wanted the Welsh coaching job, which no doubt acted as a huge motivational tool. - He was sacked within hours of their defeat !!
Elsewhere, In Pool 1, Leicester's win in Rodney Parade ended the Dragons' interest; In Pool 2, Tououse won comfortably in the end at Leeds; In Pool 4, Northampton won in Agen; In Pool 5, Biarritz won in Sale; in Pool 6 Celtic Warriors beat Perpignan and what all that adds up to is the sort of scenario that has pundits, sponsors and organisors licking their lips on this, the final weekend of January.
And so the first steps on the boulevard of dreams will be trod this evening on Welford Road when Leicester entertain Stade Francais. The least the home side need is a draw. If they lose they're out. In Belfast Ulster have just pride to play for after a marvellous but in the end gut-wrenching defeat in Paris.
On Saturday, Leinster need just one precious point away to a side (Biarritz) who must win by more than seven. Munster must win at home to Bourgoin to qualify, the bonus point will give them a home 'quarter'.
Whoever wins in Franklin's Gardens (Northampton v Llanelli) goes through and Perpignan needs a full five and a plus seven winning margin to see off Wasps. And in Pool 2, Edinburgh, the only side already qualified and the first Scottish outfit to do so, could end up top seeds and with a home quarter to follow, if they turn Toulouse over in the Stade Ernest Wallon.
The way this competition has gone that is not beyond the bounds of possibility.