The 2014 Heineken Cup quarter-finals are upon us, presenting fans with several mouth-watering ties as the final eight teams left in the competition prepare to do battle over the course of Saturday and Sunday.
Holders Toulon will host Leinster and Leicester travel to Clermont to take on a club unbeaten at home since 2009. Munster will host Toulouse and Saracens face a difficult trip to meet Ulster.
Munster v Toulouse
Saturday, April 5, 1.30 p.m. BST, Sky Sports 2/Sky Go app
Both clubs have suffered unusually difficult seasons, with visitors Toulouse in real danger of losing out on the playoffs in the French league and Munster having lost two of their last five matches, including the rivalry match with Leinster.
Toulouse fell to Toulon in league play last week but rested the bulk of their starters, and internationals such as Maxime Medard, Gael Fickou and Yoann Maestri will make their return to the starting lineup.
Yannick Nyanga and Luke McAlister are the only two question marks on the bench for the four-time cup winners.
Captain Peter O'Mahony returned to training for the hosts earlier this week and is expected to start against Toulouse, according to the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley:
Peter O'Mahony fit and back to lead Munster. Only other change sees return of James Downey at inside centre.— Gerry Thornley (@gerrythornley) April 4, 2014
Toulouse might be returning a bunch of their starters, but the club has been far too inconsistent this season and could pay the price against a solid Munster squad.
Prediction: Munster advance, 28-16
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers
Saturday, April 5, 4 p.m. BST, Sky Sports 2/Sky Go app
David Blair believes the visitors will be able to break one of the most impressive win streaks in recent rugby history: 74 consecutive home wins is an unbelievable number, and the Telegraph's Alasdair Reid investigated the cause of the streak, connecting it to the personality of the town and how it experiences its rugby.
Reid quotes coach Venn Cotter saying:
Here, there are shared values between the team and the town. There is no other team close by here, so everyone is very united. We’re in the middle of France and we like the fact we’re hiding away here and battling our opposition.
It is traditionally a working class town. It is a rural community, people are attached to the land, the Puy de Dôme [the volcanic massif which towers over Clermont-Ferrand]. There are symbolic things that unite people here, and rugby is one of them.
This is not a flamboyant part of the world. It’s not on the coast. The people are not transient people; they are people who live here. They’re straight up and I think that the town and the team represent those elements: hard-working, humble, discreet almost. They don’t get carried away.
The Tigers, for their part, are unbeaten in their last seven and know all too well every match needs to be played. While the hosts may have an enormous advantage playing at home, if there's one team positioned to halt the unbeaten run, it'd be Leicester.
Leicester have few injury concerns while Sitiveni Sivivatu is the only big name that will be missing for Clermont, so both teams should be able to do battle at nearly full strength and provide fans with one hell of a spectacle.
Prediction: Clermont continue the streak, 22-20
Ulster v Saracens
Saturday, April 5, 6.30. p.m. BST, Sky Sports 2/Sky Go app
Saracens will be riding a wave of momentum going into their match with Ulster following back-to-back wins over Harlequins and Wasps, but the hosts are on a similar roll and went through the pool stage unbeaten, setting up another epic showdown.
Ruan Pienaar will return from injury for the hosts, and the South African will give his team's chances a major boost against a talented Saracens squad that is as close to fully healthy as can be.
Owen Farrell missed the win over Wasps but will return to the starting lineup, while Neil De Kock could make his 200th appearance for the club if he is used as a substitute off the bench, as reported by Skududu's Dan Nicholl:
Still one of the best scrumhalves in the game: an extraordinary 200th game for @Saracens tomorrow for Neil de Kock. Good luck Niles...— Dan Nicholl (@dannicholl) April 4, 2014
A fitting end to an excellent day of rugby, this tie should be a close one.
Prediction: Ulster grind out a win, 16-13
Toulon v Leinster
Sunday, April 6, 4.30. p.m. BST, Sky Sports 3/Sky Go app
Defending champions Toulon will have their hands full with a highly talented Leinster squad in the last remaining match on Sunday.
These two teams have combined to win the tournament four out of the last five times, and it's almost cruel for fans they'll go up against each other this early in the competition. The hosts will welcome Johnny Wilkinson back to the starting lineup, the veteran England international being rested against Toulouse last weekend.
The French squad aren't lacking in talent, even with injuries to Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams, and Leinster will have to be at their very best to topple the hosts.
With no major injury concerns and plenty of experience distributed throughout the squad (Brian O'Driscoll and Eoin Reddan will do that for you), the visitors will travel to France feeling good about their chances. The return of Cian Healy could be huge for Leinster, and the Irish international will make his 125th start for the club.
Prediction: Toulon are just too good at home, 29-22