Qualification for the knockout stage of Europe’s premier club tournament is on the line once again as the tension-packed Rounds 5 and 6 of the Heineken Cup assume centre stage in the coming fortnight.
Once the drama and number-crunching conclude, six pool winners and the two best pool runners-up will have booked prized spots in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, while the three next best pool runners-up will extend their season in Europe by qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Since 2010 when Cardiff Blues became the first Heineken Cup qualifier to win the Amlin Challenge Cup, Biarritz Olympique in 2012, and Leinster Rugby, last season, have also triumphed via the same route.
Once the pool stages of both ERC tournaments are completed, all roads will lead to the Cardiff 2014 finals with the Heineken Cup decider going ahead at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, 24 May the day after the Amlin Challenge Cup final kicks off Europe’s big club rugby weekend at the Cardiff Arms Park on Friday, 23 May.
With heavyweight Anglo-French clashes between Toulouse and Saracens, and Harlequins and ASM Clermont Auvergne, to savour in Round 5, the 35,624-capacity Allianz Riviera in Nice will become the 104th venue to stage a Heineken Cup fixture when reigning champions, Toulon, host Cardiff Blues in a potentially decisive game at the top of Pool 2.
Ulster Rugby, currently the only unbeaten club in the tournament, are probably not too mindful of the haunting statistic that no club which has come through the pool stage with six wins has gone on to win the trophy in the same season. Defeating Montpellier at Ravenhill in Round 5 and setting up a possible pool decider with Leicester Tigers in Round 6 is more on the 1999 champions’ agenda at the moment.
With a view to facilitating advance planning by ERC and the qualified clubs, and to help map out the route to both European finals, the semi-final draws for the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup will be made directly after the final Round 6 pool games on Sunday, 19 January.
The Heineken Cup draw will take place at approximately 5.15pm and will be followed by the draw for the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals. Both draws will be televised live, and will also be available on ercrugby.com