Peter Jackson takes a look at the prospective fortunes of some of the big-name teams fighting for survival in this season's Heineken Cup, starting with former winners Bath Rugby, who face a tough match up with an in form Edinburgh side.
Bath have many claims to fame, not least as the first English winners of the Heineken Cup in January 1998, a time when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic.
Unless they are very careful when Edinburgh come to The Rec on Sunday afternoon, Bath could easily stumble into another first, as in the first former European champion to be counted out halfway through the pool competition. If the notion sounds too preposterous for words, then an inspection of Bath's results this season might suggest it is nothing of the sort.
There they are, into the fourth month of the campaign still waiting for their first home win in both the Guinness Premiership and the Heineken -- second from bottom on the domestic front, bottom in Europe.
The seventh of Julien Dupuy's penalties for Stade Francais leaves the old champions with no further margin for error if they are to dig themselves out of trouble.
On a weekend when the incomparable Max Guazzini takes his pan-European crusade to new frontiers by relocating Stade Francais' home tie against Ulster to Brussels, Bath will hope to show their long-suffering fans that the club's European horizons have not narrowed to the point of expulsion, at least not yet.
Their predicament is such that their immediate aim is to avoid the embarrassment of being stopped so far inside the distance as to beggar belief. Edinburgh, who revived their perennial hope of reaching the last eight with a home win over Ulster a week after they had seen Bath off at Ravenhill in early October, head south with the smell of English blood in their nostrils.
The irony of the occasion will not be lost on Andy Robinson, whose ferocious will to win typified the spirit which made the old Bath of Graham Dawe, Victor Ubogu, John Mallett, Nigel Redman, John Hall, Richard Hill, Stuart Barnes and so many more virtually unbeatable at home.
Robinson, the former captain, was head coach that day in Bordeaux when Christophe Lamaison's botched drop goal attempt for Brive seconds from time made Bath skipper Andy Nicol a very relieved man at escaping permanent damage for conceding what could have been a fateful five-metre scrum.
Nobody could ever have bled more for the Bath cause, literally and metaphorically, than Robinson. How strange, therefore, that some twelve years after conquering Europe, Bath should find themselves confronted by the team whom their former coach reinvigorated so impressively that the Scottish Rugby Union made him the first Englishman to coach their national team.
The question now is whether Edinburgh have what it takes to put Bath out of their misery. If they are to be taken seriously as
contenders for the last eight, a claim which stretches credibility given their failure to survive the pool stage in eleven of the last twelve tournaments, nothing less than a win will be good enough.
Bath are not the only former Heineken Cup winners on the endangered list of the third pool round which offers an array of
outstanding ties topped off by Munster's tricky duel with French champions
Perpignan in Limerick on Friday night followed barely 24 hours later by Leinster's trip to the Scarlets' new den. Brive, whose wondrous rout of Leicester in the 1997 final will never be forgotten by those of us lucky enough to have been there that day at Cardiff Arms Park, are also in the Played 2, lost 2 category.
Beaten by the Scarlets in Llanelli and then overwhelmed at home by defending champions Leinster, they must now see London Irish off on Saturday night. A home win last week over Toulouse in Le Championnat shows that Brive mean business and that Europe's most successful club are in the throes of a mid-season wobble. They go to Cardiff after a run of away defeats stretching back to their fortuitous win at Harlequins in the last round of the Heineken almost two months ago.
Quins' lunchtime start against Sale at The Stoop affords the Londoners the capacity, if all it goes horribly wrong, to
drop out before Bath kick off against Edinburgh.
Nobody has ever lost three pool matches and made it to the quarter-finals. If Sale do the business on Sunday after deserving far more than a losing bonus point for their enterprise at Saracens last weekend, then Quins will be on their way out.
Finals Edition: Listen to the best guide to the European Rugby Cup Finals weekend in Dublin, which sees Leinster Rugby take on Stade Francais Paris at the RDS on Friday night in the Amlin Challenge Cup Final and then ASM Clermont Auvergne tackle Toulon in an all-French affair at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.