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Get to 21 and Welsh regions will have the key to the door for making progress.

Byline: gwyn jones

PREDICTING the teams going to qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup is an annual past-time enjoyed by pundits and armchair aficionados alike.

Success in this field has been found in equal measure by detailed study of the teams as well as by random leaps of reasoning.

My preferred method of clairvoyance has been the trusted technique of putting the pin in the paper whilst blindfolded.

Sadly, it has been far from reliable.

If Derren Brown cannot foresee the right number on a roulette wheel, what hope is there for us mere mortals? Therefore, instead of looking forward I have decided to look back, the past being the best predictor of the future as they say.

By examining the previous five Heineken Cups I am searching for the minimum number of points a team needs to accumulate from their six pool matches to get them into the knockout stages.

The average number of points a team needs to win its group is 23, but some have won their pool with a score as low as 19.

However, in order to guarantee passage into the last eight it is better to look at the two best loser spots.

Only once in the past five seasons has a total of 21 points not been good enough to qualify.

In fact the average points total needed to claim the eighth qualifying position is 20.5.

Conventional wisdom has told us that groups containing Italian teams have provided the easiest passage into the last eight. However the facts disagree. Only four of the 10 teams that qualified as best losers had Italian opposition in their group.

Indeed, the stats suggest that the Dragons and Glasgow, rather than the Italian sides, are the two sides with whom you want to be drawn.

Each have an impressive 75 per cent conversion rate at getting fellow pool teams through as best losers.

With these facts in hand, it's time to apply this historical perspective to this year's competition.

The first thing that strikes you is that the Dragons and Glasgow are in one group this season.

But before Gloucester and Biarritz start counting their chickens, they should be warned that the Dragons are no more the walkover they once were. They will be substantial opponents at home and feisty underdogs away.

They still lack the class to be contenders in their group but at least they won't be ignored this season. A total of 21 points is not within their grasp but a couple of home wins and the odd bonus point should see them reach double figures.

The heady heights of last season's 27 points seem a distant memory for the Blues. If the teams in this group were on form then Pool 5 with Toulouse, Harlequins and Sale could have been this year's nightmare group. Instead, the teams are performing under a major malaise. The Blues look like a Calzaghe waltz - uncoordinated, shapeless and lacking precision. This pool is there for the taking and the first team that gets its act in gear should win it.

For the Blues to get towards 21 points they will need to win three home games giving them 12 and beat Sale away next week which takes them to 16.

However they have looked vulnerable at home so far this season. I reckon that Toulouse's ability to win at home and score tries will take them to the top of this group, but not by much.

Is this the year that the Ospreys fulfil their potential? This is a question we ask every season, but end up disappointed.

To reach their 21 points, they will need to beat Viadana twice with a bonus point, giving 10 points and also beat Leicester and Clermont at home giving a total of 18.

The three extra points could come from two bonus-point wins at home and a crucial losing point in Leicester. That is a realistic route into the last eight. However a simpler way is to beat the Tigers on Sunday and sail though as winners with a home draw.

I have seen more signs of cohesion from the Ospreys in the last couple of weeks than I have for some time. Dan Biggar has given the side some shape, freeing James Hook from the shackles of controlling the game.

Ryan Jones has a degree of urgency back in his legs and Tommy Bowe in the centre gives the back line greater potency.

My only concern is the scrum which Leicester will test to breaking point but hopefully not beyond. Provided the Ospreys return with something from Welford Road, they will be on course for the last eight.

Finally, the Scarlets find themselves in the invidious position of having Europe's two form teams in their pool. Leinster and London Irish are high on confidence as the struggling Scarlets fail to push on from a promising start.

Almost without noticing the Scarlets have swapped places with the Dragons as a team that gets sympathy rather than criticism when they lose by 45 points. The chances of the Scarlets reaching 21 points are slim to say the least.

They are rebuilding but are beginning to be left behind by their neighbours the other side of Loughor Bridge.

As for predicting who will be the actually win in the Cup in Paris at the end of the season, I return to my pin, paper and blindfold method... here we go.. and the winner is... well would you believe it... !
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Oct 8, 2009
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