The heat is on as the 2000/2001 Samsung Nations Cup series draws to a close with Germany topping the league table going into the last four rounds and a right royal battle still taking place to ensure qualification for the final in Madrid next month.
The Irish took the league by storm with 10 wins last year but no other team has matched that this time around. Germany topped the line-up at the 4-Star fixtures in St Gallen and Modena and the 3-Star legs in Ikast, Poznan, Budapest and Bratislava but they would need to win the last four rounds - at Gijon next weekend, then Rotterdam, Spruce Meadows and Sofia - if they want to equal the Irish record and that seems unlikely at this stage. Unlikely perhaps because the top six teams will all want to hold onto their current positions in order to get to Madrid and that means that the next few weeks should see some of the toughest competition so far.
The Italians held the advantage for much of the early season following their double-victories scored in the two opening rounds at Podebrady, Czechoslovakia and Zagrab, Croatia and, having added Helsinki to their 3-Star tally and maximum points from the 4-Star at Lisbon they lie in second position on the league table at present, but a full 11 points behind the current leaders.
The Belgians are a much-closer third, just two points further adrift, having shot up the leaderboard after their historic victory in Dublin 10 days ago when they claimed the coveted Aga Khan Cup for the very first time. The Nations Cup title at Aachen had also eluded them until this year, but they seem to be ticking things off their "wish-list" and if the Samsung final is on that then the rest had better beware.
The Irish were far from happy about their performance on their home ground where they finished a disappointing fourth. Much had been expected by the home crowd following their European Championship victory and they have now slipped one place, to equal-fourth, on the Samsung league table having arrived in the top six with a late run.
The French have only had nine league outings this season and, having claimed the honours at their own 4-Star in La Baule and then in Rome, kept a low profile until rallying again with a close second place in Dublin while the Swiss are in sixth position as the fourth-last qualifying round takes place in Gijon next weekend but the Dutch, next in line, are still in with a good chance of demoting some of the stragglers if they can do the business over the next few weeks.
They are the ones who can really upset the current rankings and they will, no doubt, be hoping to make the right impression at their home fixture in Rotterdam in two weeks time. The Swiss, Irish and French are all in danger if their own luck is out and the Dutch find form at the right time, so there is still plenty to play for over the next few weeks as this Samsung Nations Cup series moves to an exciting close.