Eight clubs, Six Nations

The final set of Heineken Cup group phase matches resulted in none of the prospective quarter-finals being played on French soil for the first time since the competition’s inception 14 years ago while at the same time throwing up four qualifiers attempting to win the trophy for a first time.

Defending champions Munster made sure of Pool 1 supremacy with a 39-13 away victory over Montauban and go on to welcome Ospreys at their virtually impregnable home ground. The Welsh side finished second to Leicester in Pool 3 despite shading the two clubs’ closing encounter 15-9, the Tigers now enjoying home advantage over Bath who held Toulouse to a 3-3 draw in atrocious conditions at The Rec.

Their French Pool 5 opponents, although retaining one of the two best runner-up spots by virtue of Wasps Pool 2 failure to beat Castres, on the other hand, face the daunting task of travelling to Pool 6 winners Cardiff Blues, the only unbeaten side remaining in the tournament. Lastly, Leinster took top spot in Pool 2 with a 12-3 success over Edinburgh and must match up to easy Pool 4 winners Harlequins, who progressed at the main expense of Stade Francais, in London next.

While Europe’s premier club competition takes an extended break until April 10/11, the RBS Six Nations European championships kick into action next weekend. England will have an early opportunity to make a confidence-boosting recovery from a humbling series of autumn defeats with an opening Twickenham encounter against underdogs Italy, but already a week later coach Martin Johnson will have a more realistic idea of what his team is capable of when sending Steve Borthwick and company out against Wales in Cardiff.

A further away fixture against Ireland on February 28 do not make the Three Lions favourites for the Triple Crown which may well be decided by the closing March 21 clash between the Welsh and Irish with the first-mentioned enjoying home advantage. Scotland appears to have been handed the best draw on paper, but must face the old enemy for this year’s Calcutta Cup in London on the final match day, seven days after France are the visitors at HQ.