The Ospreys' troubled wait to announce themselves as a major player in Europe will have gone one of two ways before the end of the month, either in a blaze of glory or a third successive postponement for twelve more interminable months, writes ercrugby.com columnist, Peter Jackson
Avoiding another anti-climactic finish will require clearing hurdles daunting enough to reduce Beecher's Brook to little more than a molehill on the Aintree landscape. All the Welsh birds of prey have to do to ensure an unbeaten passage into the last eight of the incomparable Heineken Cup is eliminate the top team in France this Saturday and do a similar removal job on the top team in England the following Saturday.
Clermont Auvergne and Leicester Tigers, the other super-heavyweights in a seriously competitive pool, pose a double test as severe as any faced by one team in the pool competition anytime, anywhere.
Just as well, therefore, that the Ospreys hit the road to central France armed by a winning streak in support of an inner belief that they are about to obliterate any mental blocks over their surprising disintegration in the quarter-final at Saracens two years ago and the less surprising but similar disintegration in the same stage of the tournament at Thomond Park last year.
A journey to the heart of a region famous for its range of volcanic mountains and vast tyre production is never easy at the best of times, let alone when the locals are fighting for their lives. An away win would send the Michelin Men bouncing out of the competition and the Ospreys back to Swansea knowing that a win over Leicester would not only guarantee Wales a quarter-final but a home one to boot. Anything less than maximum points from Viadana at home on Saturday afternoon will be the subject of a steward's inquiry at Welford Road.
Clermont, or to give them their full title Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne, have been waiting to settle the score since losing a thriller at the Liberty last autumn by the narrowest possible margin after coming from a long way behind on the strength of three second-half tries. They excelled themselves by scoring five against Leicester before Christmas, then warming up for the Ospreys by winning at Toulouse last week and knocking Castres off their pedestal at
the top of Le Championnat.
Having cleaned up all opposition in their neighbourhood with emphatic wins over the Scarlets and the Cardiff Blues, the Ospreys know the time has come to start winning the big ones. Clermont have been trying to do that off and on for more than 70 years, slogging their way to ten French championship finals since 1936, most recently against Perpignan last
year, and losing every one, the majority by the current equivalent of one score.
A losing bonus point for the Ospreys would only be enough if they then see Leicester off in Swansea, something which they singularly failed to do at the same last pool stage twelve months ago when a losing bonus point squeezed the Tigers through at the Ospreys' expense and all the way to the final. Giving Wasps the heave-ho in the Guinness Premiership is one thing. Keeping the lid on a team bursting with Grand Slammers from the immovable Adam Jones to the irresistible Tommy Bowe is a very different matter.
The fact that no club has ever made the last eight under the current system with fewer than 20 points is a sobering reminder for three other English contenders of what it takes to get that far. Northampton, for example, must beat Perpignan at Franklin's Gardens on Sunday and then find the nerve to win in Limerick if they are to reach the knock-out stages for only the second time since their famous rearguard action under Pat Lam's command during that improbable final at Twickenham ten years ago.
The only Premiership club to average more than two tries per game this season, the Saints have the most consistent finisher in any European league in Chris Ashton. England's new wing-in-waiting has touched down 15 times this season, nine of them in the last six matches.
That and Perpignan's elimination by Munster's ruthless exhibition down by the Mediterranean before Christmas should give them real hope of making it a five-pointer. Anything less is unlikely to be enough.
London Irish ought to ensure an English presence in the quarter-finals with a winning trip to Llanelli where the locals are still recovering from an avalanche of Leinster tries. Sale face a tricker trip across the Severn Bridge to another new venue, the Cardiff City stadium where the Blues are in dire need of something to check their slide from heroic semi-finalists one seasons into also-rans the next.