Three teams remain unbeaten - Harlequins, Toulouse and Cardiff Blues - but even they are not guaranteed a quarter-final berth given the outstanding quality of teams that they must face over the next two weeks. What is not in doubt is that the quality of rugby will be out of the top drawer and the excitement that this competition creates will continue to inspire and amaze millions of rugby supporters throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
Can Munster continue their amazing success in the competition? The answer is yes - but only by the skin of their teeth. Two recent defeats in the Magners League have tarnished their invincibility tag but a win against Sale Sharks in Round 5 will guarantee them a quarter-final place.
Leinster's surprise defeat to Castres Olympique opened the door for London Wasps and with close to 30,000 fans flocking to Twickenham for this clash, Wasps will be desperately looking to use this match to kick start their European ambitions. A win in favour of the London outfit will take this Pool to the wire and, whilst Leinster will have home advantage over Edinburgh, Wasps' journey to Castres could yet see them qualify.
This Pool boils down to the final match between the Ospreys and Leicester Tigers in Round 6. Even if Perpignan beat the Ospreys in the previous round it is vital for the Welsh region to take a bonus point from Dan Carter's team to give them a fighting chance against Leicester. The Tigers will be expected to take a winning bonus point against Benetton Treviso but if both Leinster and Ospreys are tied on points this group could be determined by getting out the calculators and slide rules.
Harlequins' back-to-back victories over Stade Français Paris in December were what dreams are made of along with a touch of good old fashioned guts and self belief. Surely 'Quins will wrap up qualification against Ulster Rugby in Round 5 at Ravenhill although coach Matt Williams will have a say in that. If not, 'Quins have the breathing space to put away Scarlets in their final game and guarantee a home quarter-final slot.
For me Toulouse, alongside Munster, are one of the most dangerous sides in this competition and they have the pedigree to match. The fire cracker in this group is the final match in Round 6 between Bath Rugby and Toulouse at The Recreation Ground, Bath. A Bath win secures the home quarter-final tie but expect this one to go to the wire after Toulouse sneaked the first tie by 18-16.
Dai Young's team, Cardiff Blues, have been going about qualification in this season's competition in a very workmanlike manner. Two tight victories over Biarritz Olympique have got them to this position and they lead all the Pools on 18 points. Their next match against Gloucester Rugby could secure them a home quarter-final tie but the 'Cherry and Whites' have huge potential to open up any team with their dynamic attacking rugby that will need to be bettered by the Blues. If Gloucester do hold out then expect a try feast from Cardiff Blues against Rugby Calvisano at the Arms Park in the final game of this group to secure qualification. Gloucester will then require an away win against Biarritz if they are to secure qualification as one of the two second placed clubs.
Round 5: Rugby Calvisano v Biarritz Olympique; Gloucester Rugby v Cardiff Blues
Round 6: Cardiff Blues v Rugby Calvisano; Biarritz Olympique v Gloucester Rugby
HOW THEY QUALIFY FOR THE QUARTER-FINALS
Four points for a win, two points for a draw (match points). A bonus point will be earned by a team scoring four or more tries and by a team losing by seven or less points. The six Pool winners and two best placed runners-up will qualify for the quarter-finals and will be decided by the following criteria:
(i) the Pool winner will be the Club with the highest number of match points earned in each Pool. The runners-up will be the two second placed Clubs from all six Pools with the next highest number of points. For the quarter-final round, the Pool winners will be ranked 1 - 6 in terms of the number of points earned. The runners-up will be ranked 7 and 8.
CLUBS IN THE SAME POOL
(ii) if two or more Clubs are equal on points and the Clubs are in the same Pool, then qualification / ranking will be based on the matches played between the Clubs concerned:
(a) the Club which has earned the most number of match points from the matches
(b) the Club which has scored the most tries in the matches
(c) the Club with the best aggregate points difference from the matches
CLUBS FROM DIFFERENT POOLS
(iii) if still unresolved, or the teams have not played each other previously in the Pool stage, qualification / ranking will be based on:
(a) the number of tries scored in all Pool matches
(b) aggregate points difference from all Pool matches
(c) the Club with the fewest number of players sent off and / or suspended in all Pool
(d) toss of a coin
Teams ranked 1-4 will have home advantage. The quarter-finals will be:
Team 1 v Team 8; Team 2 v Team 7; Team 3 v Team 6; Team 4 v Team 5
… AND QUARTER-FINAL CRUNCH TIME
The race for quarter-final qualification is entering the home straight with the majority of the coveted eight places set to go all the way to the completion of Round 6 matches. However, Harlequins hold a commanding six points lead at the top of Pool 4 and a Round 5 win over Ulster Rugby at Ravenhill would guarantee Quins quarter-final qualification - but not all important ranking with home advantage going to the best four Pool winners. And Cardiff Blues are in the Pool 6 driving seat, four points clear of Gloucester Rugby with their Kingsholm Sunday showdown potentially the clash of Round 5.
... SEMI FINAL
The draw for the Heineken Cup semi-finals will take place in Edinburgh on Tuesday, 27 January.
LEADING SCORERS 2008/09
64 - Toby Flood, Leicester Tigers
58 - Ben Blair, Cardiff Blues
57 - Brock James ASM Clermont Auvergne
47 - Ronan O'Gara Munster
37 - Stephen Jones Scarlets
36 - Danny Cipriani London Wasps
34 - Butch James Bath Rugby
33 - Olly Barkley Gloucester Rugby
4 - Tommy Bowe Ospreys
4 - Brian O'Driscoll Leinster
3 - Toby Flood Leicester Tigers
3 - Maxime Medard Toulouse
3 - Leigh Halfpenny Cardiff Blues