THE IRISH PROVINCES went into round four of the Heineken Cup pool stages with high hopes of advancing their quarter-final qualification chances.
However, within the space of 48 grizzly hours, all four sides had been defeated.
It is now a matter of needing bonus point wins and relying on pool rivals to slip up.
Ulster seem, with three wins and one defeat, are the country’s best hope for the knock-out stages while Connacht would require miracle results and performances.
The teams topping each of the six pools automatically advance with two best runners-up [based on points accumulated] will join them.
If teams in the same group end up on the same points, their head-to-head record is compared. If they got the same amount of points, the team that scored the most tries in the two matches gets the nod.
If that still fails to separate the sides, the club with the best aggregate points difference from the two matches goes through.
Here is how the final two matches shape up for the Irish teams:
Munster – Pool 1
Munster got off to a terrible start in Paris when they coughed up a winning position to fall 22-17 to Racing Metro. They bounced back with a bonus point win over Edinburgh but then traded a win and loss with Saracens.
They sit on 11 points and will need a bonus point win against Edinburgh at the weekend to give themselves a realistic chance of qualifying. Racing face Sarries in France on Saturday and Rob Penney will be hoping that neither side will claim maximum points.
What is likely? Racing to beat Saracens in a close game and Munster to win in Scotland without the bonus point. This would leave Racing on 16 points, a point ahead of Munster and Saracens. The Reds will then beat Racing at Thomond Park while Sarries will comfortably dispose of Edinburgh at home. Predicted top two: Saracens (20), Munster (19).
Connacht – Pool 3
Connacht have beaten Zebre away and Biarritz at home but, needing to realistically win each home game, their hopes were ended by a 30-22 loss to Harlequins at the Sportsground.
Quins are one of only three sides unbeaten in this year’s competition and entertain Connacht at The Stoop on Saturday. Eric Elwood’s charges would need two bonus point wins and need teams like Montpellier, Leicester and Munster [in other pools] to implode.
What is likely? Harlequins should be the only side to emerge from Pool 3. They will beat Connacht at the weekend but Eric Elwood’s men will end an improved campaign with a home win over Zebre. Quins are away to Biarritz in their last game but will claim a win to secure a home quarter final. Predicted top two: Harlequins (27), Biarritz (15).
Ulster – Pool 4
Andrew Trimble is tackled by Northampton’s Tom Wood. (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
Ulster’s destiny is still in their own hands but their grasp on comfortable qualification slipped when Northampton Saints turned them over at Ravenhill.
Up until that home loss, Mark Anscombe’s men had looked most impressive as they put beat Glasgow away and got bonus point wins over Saints and Castres. They lead Pool 4 on 15 points and will be close to qualification with a bonus point win at home.
What is likely? Ulster, given their bonus point wins, could advance with one good win but they will be targeting the victories that would secure a home [Irish based] quarter-final. Glasgow have been going well in recent weeks in the Pro12 but Ulster are capable of a bonus point win.
They beat Castres 41-17 earlier in the season and should beat them in France, albeit by a tighter margin. Predicted top two: Ulster (24), Northampton (18).
Leinster – Pool 5
Two defeats to Clermont Auvergne leave Leinster at the precipice of elimination with losing bonus points against the French their crumbs of comfort.
Clermont have dominated the pool and will be looking to beat Exeter and Scarlets in their closing matches to set up a quarter-final at Stade Marcel Michelin.
Joe Schmidt’s men are on the hunt for bonus points and got into the swing of things with a 31-16, four-try win over Edinburgh in the weekend’s Pro12 encounter. They need two five-pointers to give themselves a chance of advancing.
What is likely: Leinster, with Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa in the frame to play, are more than capable of turning on the style to get the maximum five points against Scarlets. There problem will be defeating Exeter and scoring four tries at Sandy Park. They will win but by less than double figures. Predicted top two: Clermont (27), Leinster (19).
Totting it all up
There is also the possibility that clubs from different pools may end on the same points.
The number one criteria in deciding who goes through to the quarter-finals would be the amount of tries scored in all pool matches. If both teams have scored the same amount of tries then the team with the best points aggregate goes through.
Pool 2, with Leicester and Toulouse leading the way, looks the safest bet to claim one of the best runners-up slots so it may come down to a count-back between Munster [current tries: 7] and Leinster  for the final slot.
That should decide the team to progress but two further routes are available. One team may progress if they had fewer players sent off or suspended following pool matches. Following that, qualification would come down to the toss of a coin.
To the majority of the provinces right now, a coin toss looks pretty attractive.
-- first published earlier this week