It is time for our weekly wrap up of who has their name in lights at the moment...and who is making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
They're on fire!
Ulster, Clermont, Toulon, Munster: Hats off to this quartet for booking the much coveted home quarter-final places in the Heineken Cup. Ulster finished top of the overall pile and were the only outfit to finish with a perfect six wins from six record. What has been missed amid all the absorbing action is that the four games will take place at probably the best European club venues in terms of atmosphere; Ravenhill, Marcel Michelin, Felix Mayol and Thomond Park. It says a lot about this competition that this writer is more excited about April 4, 5, 6 than the Six Nations.
Gloucester: It hasn't been a happy time at Gloucester this season as form has been, let's say, more miss than hit, but on Sunday they put Perpignan to the sword at Stade Aimé Giral. The Cherry and Whites' 36-18 bonus-point win starred a fine performance at outside centre from Jonny May while Shane Monahan crossed twice and Freddie Burns enjoyed a good game. The big ask now for the Kingsholm faithful is for some consistency in form.
Ruan Pienaar: Rugby is a team game but sometimes an individual simply has to take a big slice of the plaudits. That man is Pienaar as on Saturday at Welford Road he was exceptional in all areas. He put in a defensive shift, scored a critical try that lifted his side and also kicked superbly for Ulster in a 22-point haul that felled the Tigers. A Ravenhill quarter awaits before a home (local) semi. Leicester were well and truly Ruan-ed.
Bath, Sale, Brive, Wasps, Stade Francais: Granted some have been far better than others in terms of Amlin Challenge Cup performances but credit where credit is due, this quintet sealed top spot in their respective Pools. Because of Brive's inferior points total, they will make a tough trip to the Recreation Ground while Sale, Stade Francais and Wasps host Northampton, Quins and Gloucester respectively. This competition just got interesting.
Bismarck du Plessis After taking over the captaincy at the Sharks, from Keegan Daniel, the Springbok hooker is in a much better mood at the start of 2014 than he was at the same stage in 2013 when, at this stage of the season, he was battling to overcome a knee injury.
Top 14 TV deal: The Ligue Nationale de Rugby last week signed a new five-year agreement with Canal+ worth a total amount of €355 million. The new average of €71 million per term for the Top 14 is a marked increase from the €31.7 million paid by Canal for this season. While this is great for a sport that still lags behind the money thrown around in the round ball game, a player drain from the southern and home nations is subsequently set to continue, if not increase. Put simply, Super Rugby, Premiership and PRO12 clubs will not be able to compete financially as the monthly figures we saw in Le Journal du Dimanche (Jonny Wilkinson - £48,155, Jonathan Sexton - £44,711 and Bryan Habana - £42,991) rise.
Get these guys a cup of warm soup!
English Heineken Cup clubs: The key to success in Europe is winning your home games and this season visitors to England have often enjoyed their travels. Defeats in key Heineken Cup fixtures at Wembley, Welford Road, Franklin's Gardens, Kingsholm, Sandy Park and the Twickenham Stoop meant that there were no pool winners from the Premiership clubs and both English quarter-final qualifiers must board flights in April.
Toulouse: So hot last week, so not this time. More than ever the four-time champions have been mixing the sublime with the mediocre. The euphoria from impressive wins against Saracens was doused with ice cold water following a home loss to Connacht and the failure to get five points against Zebre in Parma. Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup was labelled as the 'easy' group yet neither Toulouse nor Sarries managed to secure home quarter-finals. The loss of flanker Thierry Dusautoir has made a trip to Thomond Park even harder.
Indecisive referees: The Television Match Official is supposed to be an aid to referees, not a crutch. Far too often we're seeing unnecessary delays as refs and their assistants go upstairs for decisions that could be made on the pitch. Even worse is the tenancy for certain officials to pass the buck when it comes time to make a call, even when evidence is clear.
Italian Heineken Cup clubs: 12 games between them. 0 pool points.
Stamps: Two incidents soured an otherwise good weekend of Pool action from a players' perspective as Ian Evans and Nathan White were seen to stamp on Mike McCarthy and Brad Barritt respectively. The Ospreys second-row was shown a red card by Romain Poite while Leighton Hodges pulled out a yellow for the Connacht tighthead prop. Granted, the severity and damage done of their indiscretions were different but replays showed the same offence, ergo, that should mean the same punishment. Stamping on someone's head is a straight red card and why this was not enforced at Allianz Park still rankles.