As the tension-packed climax of the Heineken Cup pool stage comes into full view with prized quarter-final places on the line, 11 of the 24 clubs in this season's tournament will still be in elite European club rugby action next April.
While the six pool winners and the two best pool runners-up will book their spots in the Heineken Cup knockout stage, the three next best pool runners-up will extend their European season by qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup along with that tournament's five pool winners.
In 2010, the record-breaking Amlin Challenge Cup final in Marseille was won by a Heineken Cup qualifier, Cardiff Blues, while last season another Heineken Cup qualifier, Biarritz Olympique, triumphed in the Amlin Challenge Cup decider.
With the incentive of a prolonged run in European competition, and the possibility of winning a coveted title, there is certain to be the traditional drama surrounding the Heineken Cup Round 5 and 6 fixtures.
|Round five facts|
David Skrela of ASM Clermont Auvergne needs just 13 points to become the seventh player to earn an ERC Elite Award for scoring 500 Heineken Cup points. Skrela's 487 points to date have been scored for Colomiers (63), Stade Francais Paris (219), Toulouse (192) and Clermont (13).
Scrum half, Dwayne Peel (Sale Sharks), and back row, Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse), could earn ERC Elite Awards for 50 Heineken Cup appearances by the end of the pool stage. Peel is currently on 49 appearances (40 for Scarlets and nine for Sale) while Nyanga is on 48 (46 for Toulouse and two for Beziers).
The 38,285-capacity Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes will become the 102nd venue to stage a Heineken Cup match when Racing Metro 92 meet Saracens in Pool 1 on Saturday.
Round 5 could see the 6,000th tournament try scored. To date, 5,971 tries have been scored in the Heineken Cup with Vincent Clerc leading the individual charts on 34. A total of 41 tries were scored in Round 4.
Of the three unbeaten Heineken Cup clubs to date " Harlequins, ASM Clermont Auvergne and Toulon " Harlequins will be looking to maintain their impressive run in Pool 3 when they host Connacht Rugby at the Twickenham Stoop in Round 5 while both Clermont and Toulon are also at home in the penultimate pool stage round against Exeter Chiefs and Cardiff Blues respectively.
With qualification numbers already being crunched across the six pools, Pool 1 in particular looks set for a fascinating conclusion as a mere three points separate leaders Saracens, Racing Metro 92 and Munster Rugby. The clash of Racing and Saracens at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes (the 102nd venue to stage a Heineken Cup game) could go a long way to deciding who eventually tops the pool.
Vital ERC European ranking points are also at stake throughout the pool and knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. A pool winner is guaranteed four ranking points, and a runner-up three points. Two points are awarded to a club which finishes third, and one point to a club finishing fourth.
The ERC European ranking points system rewards and incentivises clubs which consistently perform at the highest level in European competitions. Tier positions in the 2013/14 Heineken Cup Pool Draw for qualified clubs will be determined by the ranking points system.
Two clubs could clinch automatic quarter-final qualification in Round 5 " Harlequins and ASM Clermont Auvergne " while Toulon, the only other club with four from four so far, need just six more match points to take the Pool 6 honours.Pool 1
One of the tightest of the six pools with just three points separating the top three sides. But Saracens have their quarter-final destiny in their own hands. They are two points clear of Racing Metro 92 with their Round 5 showdown in Nantes at Stade de la Beaujoire now the key contest of the pool. A regulation win for Saracens, denying Racing anything from the match, would rule the French club out of the running for automatic qualification. But Munster will stay right in the mix if they beat Edinburgh Rugby ahead of their home tie against Racing in Round 6.Pool 2
Another tight pool with any remaining try bonus points potentially crucial. Leicester Tigers are a point ahead of Toulouse " who they meet at Welford Road in Round 6 " while the Ospreys can still have a major influence on events with the Tigers having to go to the Liberty Stadium in Round 5 while Toulouse have home advantage against Benetton Treviso.Pool 3
Harlequins" to lose. The English champions need just a losing bonus point at home to Connacht Rugby in Round 5 to book their quarter-final place with a match to spare. However, home advantage in the last eight is the next prize and their trip to second-placed Biarritz Olympique in Round 6 remains a major target for Conor O'shea's squad.Pool 4
All to play for, although Ulster Rugby, the 2012 finalists, are in the box seat three points clear of Castres Olympique. Glasgow Warriors are the Round 5 visitors to Ravenhill while Castres" hopes of progress will be on the line against Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens. The Saints are five points adrift of Ulster but both will be wary of their away trips in Round 6 to Glasgow and Castres respectively.Pool 5
ASM Clermont Auvergne require nothing more than a regulation four-point win at home to Exeter Chiefs to book their place in the last eight for the third time in the last four tournaments. Their double over Leinster means that the defending champions almost certainly need try bonus-point victories over the Scarlets and Exeter to be in the best runners-up shakedown. However, there are already four other second-placed clubs with more points than Leinster with just two places up for grabs.Pool 6
Toulon are four from four so far and have a five-point cushion over Montpellier. Toulon host Cardiff Blues in Round 5 " the Welsh are still winless " while their French rivals travel to Salford City Stadium to take on Sale Sharks knowing a win is vital to keep them in the hunt and leave their all-French contest in Round 6 with plenty at stake.