Heineken Cup 2012/2013: Teams Battling for Spots in Knockout Stages

Paul MurphyCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2013

Heineken Cup 2012/2013: Teams Battling for Spots in Knockout Stages

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    After five enthralling rounds, with all the usual ups and downs, the makeup of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals will all come down to the final round of action.

    A number of sides have already qualified, while a host of heavyweights find themselves facing huge, must-win games over the course of the weekend.

    Here is a breakdown of all the sides left in contention, and a prediction of how the knockout stages will shape up come 5 p.m. Sunday.

    With so many top sides in the mix, it is sure to be an exciting weekend.

Current Standings

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    Points Tries Points Difference
    1 Harlequins 24 27 +165
    2 Toulon 23 23 +122
    3 Clermont 23 19 +120
    4 Ulster 19 12 +70
    5 Montpellier 18 15 +39
    6 Toulouse 18 14 +52
    7 Saracens 18 10 +71
    8 Leicester 16 13 +12
    9 Munster 15 9 +37
    10 Leinster 15 8 +19
    11 Biarritz 14 14 +29
    12 Northampton 14 6


    *Teams in bold have already qualified.

Pool 1: Saracens

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    A huge win last weekend in Nantes all but secured them qualification, leaving them with an outside shot at a home Quarter final.

    They welcome a struggling Edinburgh side to Vicarage Road, knowing a win will secure their passage to the knockout stages, while a bonus point win could mean that a tie is played at a venue of their choosing.

    This is a pragmatic side, so expect them to kick themselves ahead, only chasing the bonus point once the game is won.

    Given their lack of tries thus far, a bonus point might be a bridge too far, but they have the power to overwhelm Edinburgh.

    Prediction: Saracens bonus point win

Pool 1: Munster

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    It wouldn't be the Heineken Cup if Munster didn't go into the last round of fixtures needing a few balls to bounce in their favour to qualify.

    As things stand, on the premise that Saracens win, Munster need a bonus point win while out-scoring their bitter rivals, Leinster. They also need the Leicester-Toulouse game to be a low scoring affair, regardless of the winner.

    Its not the first time Munster have found themselves in such a precarious position, but they have rarely come into such a game so out of form.

    Ronan O'Gara will miss out, but that may be a blessing in disguise as Ian Keatley offers much more in attack.

    If any side can overcome the odds, it's Munster, and they will know exactly what they need to do since Leinster play the day before them.

    It may all come down to how seriously Racing Metro take the tie. French sides have a habit of falling apart once they've been knocked out.

    Prediction: Munster bonus point win

Pool 2: Leicester and Toulouse

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    In a much-watch game, two giants of the game come head-to-head Sunday in a winner takes all affair at Welford Road.

    The Ospreys may have crashed out of Europe after a poor start to their campaign, but they truly put the cat among the pigeons in recent weeks when they beat Toulouse and drew with Leicester.

    Whoever wins the game will win the group, so don't expect either side to give an inch, especially Leicester who are out if they lose. Toulouse will qualify in the event of a draw.

    Should Toulouse lose, they can still qualify in the unlikely event that they score five times and lose by seven points or fewer.

    Neither side has been at their sparkling game of late, so this game should be a tight affair. Leicester have the advantage of the home crowd, which may just be the difference.

    Prediction: Leicester win

Pool 3: Biarritz

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    Their defeat in Galway has left their hopes hanging by a thread. It would take a hugely unlikely series of events just to get themselves into the mix.

    First they would have to beat the high-flying Harlequins, a side that beat them by 27 points back in October.

    Given that the Harlequins have qualified and secured a home tie, they will likely come with a weakened team, but Biarritz will have to show some uncharacteristic attacking intent.

    They would then need Leinster, Munster and Toulouse to fail to gain a bonus point.

    Prediction: Biarritz win

Pool 4: Northampton and Ulster

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    Due to their inferior head-to-head record, Northampton are unable to catch Ulster at the head of Pool 4, and they find themselves in a worse position than even Biarritz.

    They will travel to Glasgow knowing that a bonus point win would leave them needing Biarritz, Munster, Leinster and Toulouse to fail to secure bonus points.

    They have struggled to get out of the blocks this season, so even the outside shot of qualification may not be enough to motivate their push for a bonus point.

    Ulster are chasing a home Quarter-final, a huge benefit given their record at Ravenhill, but they are suffering an injury crisis at present.

    They have enough in reserve to win, but a bonus point may be a bridge too far.

    Prediction: Northampton win and Ulster win

Pool 5: Leinster and Clermont

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    For so long the most potent attack in European rugby, Leinster's lack of tries may be the cause for them missing out on the Quarter finals.

    Five tries against Llanelli last weekend ensured they would live to fight another day, but they will need to post a big score on Saturday against the Exeter Chiefs if they are to qualify.

    While Leinster will go in blind, their domestic rivals, Munster will play on Sunday knowing exactly what they need to do to qualify.

    Leinster showed glimpses of their best against Llanelli and have a host of star names returning to fitness. Expect them to come out all guns blazing.

    Exeter for their part, are a hugely dogged side and will not role over for anyone, even the reigning European Champions.

    That said, they have a relatively small squad given the number of games they have to play, and they showed signs of fatigue last weekend.

    Leinster have too much class and desire to fall short of at least putting up a challenge.

    Clermont only need a point to secure a home tie, which they should wrap up with an easy win.

    Prediction: Leinster bonus point win and Clermont bonus point win

Pool 6: Montpellier

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    If you've been wondering why I've been implying that the remaining sides will be fighting over one runner-up spot, you'll find your answer here.

    Toulon have run roughshod over Pool 6, meaning they only need a losing bonus point to secure a home Quarter-final.

    They will travel to Montpellier with not only their own fate in their hands, but the fates of Montpellier and a host of European giants.

    Montpellier are a good side and certainly have a huge role to play in this game, but you can't help but feel that it will all come down to how Toulon approach the game.

    Toulon come across as a side that will do anything to win, even if it means not giving their all this weekend.

    My opinion is that they would rather see Montpellier in the knockout stages with one of Leinster, Munster and Toulouse, rather than a combination of said European giants.

    They'll do enough to stay in the game but not enough to win it.

    Prediction: Montpellier win

Final Standings and Quarter-Final Line-Up

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    Based on the current standings and my predictions of how the weekend will unfold, this is how I predict the table will look once all the action is complete.

    1 Clermont 28
    2 Harlequins 25
    3 Toulon 24
    4 Ulster 23
    5 Saracens 23
    6 Montpellier 22
    7 Leicester 20
    8 Munster 20

    Clermont vs. Munster

    Harlequins vs. Leicester

    Toulon vs. Montpellier

    Ulster vs. Saracens