Heineken Cup 2012/13: Quarterfinal Preview
With the Six Nations only just in the rear-view mirror and the Lions squad announcement just weeks ago, it would be easy to forget that this weekend heralds the return of the Heineken Cup.
The eight sides who survived the grueling group stages will now go head-to-head over the course of the weekend.
For those with their sights set on the Lions this will be a chance to show how they cope in the red-hot atmosphere of knock-out rugby, while the French and English sides will be battling to end the recent reign of Irish dominance.
With so much on offer, this should prove to be an exciting weekend of action for European rugby fans.
Clermont vs. Montpellier
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Three years ago, Clermont finally broke a run of 10 French championship final defeats that dated all the way back to 1936. Having seen off their European nemesis Leinster in the group stages they, and the bookies, see this as their year.
It should be a game decided in the trenches as two giant French packs go head-to-head, with Clermont's brilliant home record pointing to a home victory.
With Morgan Parra pulling the strings behind the pack, Clermont should dominate the territorial game, giving their pack the field position from which to build a winning score.
Montpellier though won't be intimidated and have enough quality to keep in the game long enough to keep it competitive.
The loss of Julian Thomas will be keenly felt, but they have nothing to lose.
Predicition: Clermont victory
Saracens vs. Ulster
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Given how Saracens tend to approach big games, this should be a tight affair where accuracy off the tee could be the deciding factor.
If it is one would have to give Sarries the edge, with the metronomic Owen Farrell being much more dependable than the flighty Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson.
Ulster have a pack capable of tackling the challenge brought by Saracens and have more of an X-factor in the back-line.
The loss of key men Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe is a huge blow to Ulster especially as Saracens are operating with a full hand.
If it comes down to a kicking duel, then Saracens have the edge, but if Ulster can push the tempo and open the game up, they have a great chance to knock off Saracens.
Prediction: Ulster win
Toulon vs. Leicester
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Much like the Paris Saint-Germain vs. Barcelona game in the Champions League on Wednesday, this is very much a case of new money against old.
But, unlike PSG, Toulon appear more than capable of conquering the venerable old European heavyweight that is Leicester.
Their squad is absolutely loaded with talent, as highlighted by their signings of Danie Rossouw and Rocky Elsom in recent weeks.
Such is their power that they tend to just wear teams down slowly, a tactic that was a staple of the great Leicester sides through the years.
But this game will all come down to whether Leicester can gain parity upfront. If they don't, Jonny Wilkinson will lead them on a merry dance. If they do, they have enough spark out wide to do some damage.
Prediction: Toulon win
Harlequins vs. Munster
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Two years ago these sides met in Thomond Park in an Amlin Cup semi-final. For Munster it signaled the end of an era, while for Harlequins it was the day they came off age.
Since then, Harlequins have gone from strength to strength while Munster have stuttered endlessly, struggling to remain relevant.
Harlequins are limping into this game on the back of three back-to-back defeats in the Premiership, but their shadow side won the Anglo-Welsh Cup in the middle of that run.
Munster haven't fared much better of late with a win, draw and loss in their last three games. Their 51-24 defeat in Glasgow will worry fans but that scoreline was padded by Munster giving up three appalling intercept tries.
That said, an in from Harlequin's side should be too strong for Munster in their current state. If Quins can find form, they will win, but Munster have a habit of winning when no one gives them a chance.
Prediction: Harlequins win
Amlin Challenge Cup
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Gloucester vs. Biarritz
Gloucester are a team that are going places in England lead by an exciting young back division. The visit of Biarritz will test whether they have the pack to reach the top. In Dimitri Yachvili, Biarritz have a conductor of the highest order, who they hope will see them home.
Prediction: Gloucester win
London Wasps vs. Leinster
Wasps showed a lot of spark on the hard grounds early in the season, but have faded away with the bad weather. Their pack is a weakness that Leinster will hope to expose. They have the experience and getting knocked out of the Heineken Cup will hurt, which should spur them to the next stage.
Prediction: Leinster win
Perpignan vs. Toulouse
Ten years ago these two sides contested a Heineken Cup final, now they find themselves in the lower tier of European rugby. Toulouse, given the strength of their squad, would be most peoples favourites, but Perpignan won both of the sides' head-to-head encounters this season.
Prediction: Toulouse win
Bath vs. Stade Francais
Two former giants of European rugby meet at The Rec on Saturday in a tie that could go either way. Stade have had a tumultuous few years on and off the pitch, while Bath's new owners have big aspirations. The progress both clubs have made could be derailed should they lose here.
Prediction: Bath win