6 Bold Predictions for the Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals
Crunch time in Europe is here. While the suits in the corridors of power try to reach a solution for European rugby next season, we can at last turn our thoughts back to action on the field with four mouth-watering ties in prospect.
Home advantage at this stage has always been a huge factor, but the quality of teams left in the tournament means an upset or two could be on the cards.
Here’s what’ll happen.
Munster to Beat Toulouse
Munster face Toulouse in a rerun of the 2008 final which the Irishmen won in Cardiff.
Ireland’s form in the Six Nations suggests they should have the upper hand over Toulouse, and home advantage will count for a lot, as it always does when Thomond Park is in full voice.
Munster targeted Leinster’s scrum in last week’s RaboDirect PRO12 contest, and should do so again on Saturday with Toulouse missing Census Johnston from their front row.
They also like to throw the ball wide quickly, which is a wise game plan against a Toulouse side with giant forwards who will not appreciate being moved around an awful lot. Munster to win.
Leinster Will Down the Champs
Leinster know what it takes to go away to a French giant and win.
They did so handsomely in 2006 when they knocked Toulouse out at this stage, and need to repeat the trick against the reigning champions.
Toulon won a titanic clash with Toulouse last week, 32-28, but they are missing both first choice locks for Leinster’s visit, with Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha sidelined. This gives Matt O’Connor’s men the chance to replicate the effectiveness of the Irish mauling game, using the likes of Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Devin Toner to devastating effect.
Their choice of tactics in the backs will be intriguing. It’s almost certain Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau, playing No. 10 and No. 12 for Toulon, will kick the leather off the ball in a bid to turn this into a territorial battle.
But Leinster’s back three might want to think about running it back. Rob Kearney, his brother Dave and Luke Fitzgerald have the capacity to cause mayhem should they opt to keep it in hand.
Toulon start as favourites given their 10 wins out of 10 at home on the competition, but Leinster have won 13 of their last 14 knockout matches in Europe.
This is not unfamiliar territory. Whatever happens, this will be the last Heineken game for either Jonny Wilkinson or Brian O’Driscoll.
Leinster to nick it.
Ulster Make It an Irish Treble
Of all the sides drawn away from home in the last eight, Saracens will have been most satisfied with their lot.
A trip to Ravenhill seems a far more accommodating afternoon out than heading across the channel or taking your chances at Thomond Park.
But that is to ignore the fact that Ulster won every one of their pool-stage matches, and provided key men such as the faultless Rory Best, the impressive Chris Henry and the deadly Andrew Trimble to Ireland’s Six Nations triumph.
Allied to the guile of South African Ruan Pienaar, they are going to provide Saracens with a stiff test of their European credentials.
The Fez Heads beat Ulster at Twickenham at this stage last season, but repeating the trick away from home is another matter.
Could three Irish sides occupy four semi-final slots? The answer is yes. Ulster to win.
Clermont’s Home Record Remains Intact
Leicester got the draw nobody wanted. Clermont Auvergne, last year’s beaten finalists, have won 74 home games on the spin.
It is a staggering record that must convince many a team simply to roll over when they run out at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
It isn’t a record that will phase the champions of England. Their coach Richard Cockerill is too long in the tooth to worry about statistics, but the simple fact is Clermont have too much for his side.
Man for man, unit for unit, Clermont appear to have the advantage over the Tigers.
The men from the Massif Central will provide the only French representative in the last four.
The Tightest Contest Will Be Ulster vs. Saracens
The Irishmen let just four tries past them in the pool stages while, according to ESPNScrum.com, Saracens and Scotland flanker Kelly Brown made 56 tackles and didn't miss a single one.
The pressure of a home quarter-final will lend Ulster to a mistake-free brand of rugby, while Sarries will find little space to unleash the tournament's top try scorer so far, Chris Ashton.
Add in the fact that Sarries boss Mark McCall used to coach Ulster, and there is a strong chance that these two sides could cancel each other out on a number of occasions.
Team of the Round
1. Cian Healy
The Irish loose head prop will be fresh from a rest and raring to stick it to Toulon's All Black Carl Hayman.
2. Rory Best
His lineout throwing has been second to none of late and his work around the park exemplary.
3. BJ Botha
The Munster tight head was impressive against Leinster last week and will need to be again against the heavyweight Toulouse pack.
4. Paul O'Connell
Big games call for big-game players, which is exactly what O'Connell is. Expect another totemic performance from the Munsterman.
5. Devin Toner
The lanky lock will rise to the challenge of dismantling an under-strength Toulon lineout.
6. Peter O'Mahony
O'Mahony was a star for Ireland in the Six Nations and will produce another stellar display against Toulouse.
7. Gerhard Vosloo
The Toulon-bound South African is a star for Clermont and will prove to be a thorn in the Tigers' paw.
8. Jamie Heaslip
Leinster need a massive game from their captain in Toulon. Heaslip will deliver.
9. Morgan Parra
It's still baffling to think he has been sidelined by the national team. Parra runs games better than most No. 9s in the world and will do so again for Clermont.
10. Owen Farrell
Farrell has blossomed into a world-class No. 10 and will show it against Ulster.
11. Sitiveni Sivivatu
He has made most metres in the competition this season and will threaten Leicester from anywhere on the field.
12. Matt Giteau
The Australian is playing some of the best rugby of his career for Toulon.
13. Brian O'Driscoll
Let's have one last masterclass from the retiring magician.
14. Napolioni Nalaga
The other game-breaking Clermont wing will cause havoc against Leicester.
15. Rob Kearney
Sublime in the Six Nations, Kearney will turn it on again against Toulon.