Qualification for Heineken Cup hots up
May 9, 2000
Munster and Northampton have still got the biggest match in their histories to come - but for others the countdown to the Heineken Cup tournament of 2000/2001 has already begun.
But while the result at Twickenham on 27 May will put one team's name up in lights worldwide, Munster at least know they have already booked their place in next season's tournament as the runaway 1999/2000 Irish Interprovincial Champions.
Northampton have two shots at making sure they are in the 24-team competition in the autumn, through the English League or as the English Cup winners. The latter will be decided at Twickenham on Saturday when they tangle with Wasps.
The composition of the 2000/2001 tournament, which for the first time includes four places awarded to nations on meritocracy, is already settled with England, Ireland, Wales and France earning the one permissible additional place each through supplying the semi-finalists this time round.
Teams are nominated by their respective Unions with England and France each having a total of six competing clubs; Wales five; Ireland three and Scotland and Italy two each.
The Irish pecking order is Munster as their top side with a six out of six Interprovincial record; Ulster second best and Leinster third.
The Scottish representatives will again be Glasgow Caledonians and Edinburgh Reivers, the Reds beating the Reivers 2-1 in the Tri Series, but elsewhere there is still plenty to play for.
Leicester and Bath - who have both reached previous Heineken Cup finals, Bath winning the trophy in 1998 - are sure of being there again next season but the other England places are right in the melting pot with Gloucester, Northampton, Saracens and Bristol in the shake-down.
In Wales, Cardiff are home and dry, already crowned Welsh/Scottish League champions, with Newport and Swansea assured of a top five finish. Llanelli will also play again next season, having been granted a place by the WRu as a result of their semi-final placing this season. That leaves Ebbw Vale and Pontypridd fighting it out for the final places.
The Italian teams will be decided by the finalists for their Championship showpiece occasion on 3 June while in France it could go all the way to the wire of their final day of the season and their Championship final in Paris on 15 July.
By then either Brive or Biarritz will have already long clinched their Heineken Cup place as the winners of the French Cup final, which is being played on 1 June.
Under the criteria laid down by the different Unions, those already qualified for the 2000/2001 Heineken Cup are:
IRELAND - Munster, Ulster, Leinster