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Welford Road the First Step on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Welford Road the First Step on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

When ERC Chief Executive Derek McGrath and his marketing team sat down to set up this year’s competition they surely couldn’t have envisaged such a finish to the Pool stage.

When ERC Chief Executive Derek McGrath and his marketing team sat down to set up this year’s Heineken Cup competition they surely couldn’t have envisaged such a finish to the Pool stage. As things stand, out of the six Pools, four will be decided with winner take-all clashes this weekend. The other two (Pool 2 and 5) will determine the vital seedings. Right up to this the final weekend it has almost been impossible to say with any great certainty who would come through to the knock-out stages.

And why ? Well loads of reasons, like Edinburgh
performing heroically in Pool 2, Mike Ruddock’s Dragons confounding
all predictions in Pool 1, Cardiff adopting Romanian club form in
Pool 3, the Celts performing like real Warriors in the Pool 6 game
against Gatland’s Wasps, Leinster throwing Sale a lifeline, Pool 3
again, and ………… Munster failing to gain a bonus in their
Pool 5 game with Gloucester. Oh and of course, Ulster, dumping first
Stade Francais and then Leicester Tigers in Pool 1 Ravenhill clashes.

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See how it should have worked out was this. First the pools with the
Italian sides should have delivered the best runner-up which meant
Perpignan and London Wasps through from Pool 6: Gloucester and
Munster through from Pool 5; old reliables Llanelli – sorry Llanelli
– from Pool 4; Leinster Lions winner all right in Pool 3;
Toulouse by a distance in Pool 2 and after a dogfight, moneybags
Stade Francais to edge out Leicester Tigers in Pool 1.

Grand job. Quarter final home draw for the holders Toulouse in number
one spot. Number two would be Leinster Lions who forgot they had to
play 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) Francais
and in fourth Gloucester, rather than Perpignan, (the Chelsea of this
year’s competition).

Round one went to script, except in Rodney Parade where Ruddock’s
Dragons scorched Solomon’s White Knights and except in Scotland where
the Gunners totally lost the run of themselves and beat Brennan’s
boy’s, Toulouse. Elsewhere it was as you like it; Munster ground it
out in Bourgoin; Biarritz came to Dublin for the shopping and forgot
about the game against Leinster and in Paris an official shot
Leicester in the foot then handed the shotgun to a Leicester player
who shot off their other foot.

No huge surprises in Round Two. Guzziani’s Go Go Dancers went went
went in Ravenhill, but Ulster went much better. Leinster did a
Munster in Cardiff substituting grunt ‘n grit for fast ‘n fancy.
Anthony Foley maintained his position as Munster’s leading scorer
running 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
Went, sorry Gwent.

And then in Round Three it all went sort
of, pear-shaped.
See this is what was choreographed.

Edinburgh v Leeds – Who cares
Sharks to the
slaughter in Dublin
Anything to happen in Kingsholm – but
mainly to Munster for the their miracle audacity
Paisley to
steal the headlines in Ravenhill and Ulster a point, if they were
And after that ?
Toulouse at home to three teams (Neath Swansea & The Ospreys ? ) –
cinq point pour l’equipe de Guy Noves
Et aussi a Biarritz against
les Bleues d’Cardiff.
Northampton v The Who – Gimme Five for the Saints
Treviso v Bourgoin – Arravederci Treviso
and finally
Perpignanski at home to Calvisano – Yeh right.

Well, the rot started on Friday in Lansdowne Road –
yeh, yeh, we know – what an appropriate place etc etc – and all that
and continued unabated on Saturday when Treviso hammered the children
Bourgoin sent out to play; the Saints failed to gain a bonus against
the Borders and Munster failed likewise in Kingsholm.

But it was the Sabbath when the cat was set amongst the pigeons with
three extraordinary results. Well two extraordinary results and one
almost incredible scoreline.

Whether the Reverend Ian intended to put a hex on or not, someone did and they put it on the heathen Leicester who
ran onto the Ravenhill pitch as Tigers and slinked off some eighty
odd minutes later cuffed and cowed, the journey pointless.
Over in
Wales Ruddock’s Rodney Parade unbeaten record held up against the glamour gits of Stade
Francais and in London Warren Gatland’s all-singing, all dancing
Wasps 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.