After a Six Nations spent pretending the local rivalries made up for watching what was largely a low standard of rugby, attention turns to the Heineken Cup. The 24 teams that began the tournament have been whittled down to eight and we’ve got some very interesting quarter-final match-ups. Here’s a bitesize look at how they might unfold, but probably won’t.
Edinburgh v Toulouse – Murrayfield, Sat. 3pm
A Scottish team in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals is as rare as a good Adam Sandler movie – not impossible, it just doesn’t happen too often these days. Edinburgh managed it on merit. Yes, it wasn’t the hardest of pools and you’d have to question the fighting spirit of some of their opponents towards the end, but they topped the pool and with enough in hand to get a home quarter-final, so well done on that.
Their reward is a visit and probably beating from four-time Heineken Cup winners, Toulouse on Saturday afternoon. Guy Noves’ men are about the only team from France you know will give it everything in the Heineken Cup year in, year out. The attitude will be right and the ability is there. They’ve got top quality players across the pitch with a liberal sprinkling of genuinely world class players throughout.
Toulouse have the class, but Edinburgh have the boozed up fans and that’s going to be crucial. Murrayfield is an intimidating place when it’s more than five percent full. The other thing they have in their favour is the lack of success visiting teams have had in the quarter-finals of the competition. In the 60 quarter-finals we’ve had in the history of the competition, just over 75 percent of them (46) have seen the hosts progress to the semis .You’ve got a feeling Toulouse are good enough to defy that ominous stat, but the Scots will make it tricky.
Leinster v Cardiff – Aviva Stadium, Sat. 5.45pm
Cardiff Blues have been in the spotlight this week, but not for their rugby exploits. Gavin Henson’s ability to behave exactly like Gavin Henson forced the club into an embarrassing spotlight. The team’s management insist the major distraction won’t be a distraction and they may well be right. The turfing out of Henson from the club denies the team of a key mouthy drunk, but the loss of Jamie Roberts due to injury is the far more worrying development over the past few days.
The Blues took a hiding in Glasgow last weekend and only a small amount of it can be blamed on keeping their powder dry for the trip to the Aviva Stadium. They were a couple of key players short of their full complement, but still went tryless in a 30 point thumping. Defeat wouldn’t have been a catastrophe, but the margin of the hammering will be a real concern for the Welsh team..
The defending champions are far from flawless. They had some trouble in the scrum before kicking clear of Munster last weekend, but whether or not that was down to bad scrummaging or bad refereeing remains to be seen. A surprise defeat at home to the Ospreys a couple of weeks ago showed they’re capable of throwing in the odd stinker and the Blues will hope another will come on Saturday.
It would be a big surprise to see the champions exit at this stage, but they have been suckered punched in the knock-out rounds with home advantage in the past. Current form suggests a straightforward home win, but history whispers a word of caution.
Munster v Ulster – Thomond Park, Sun. 3.45pm
Ulster are underdogs when they travel to Thomond Park to play Munster on Easter Sunday. The fitness of Stephen Ferris will determine just how big or minuscule an underdog they will be. Ulster head coach, Mark McLaughlin insists that his team are capable of winning with or without Ferris, but the rest of the world will feel the ‘with’ option is their only chance.
Munster won’t be happy losing to Leinster last weekend, but they enjoyed long periods of domination in a tight game. With a few familiar names in the shake-up for a return to action following various injuries, they’re in decent shape. The sight of a few Heineken Cup logos dotted around the place usually elicits an improvement in performance from the Munstermen and that should see them come on from last week’s game.
An all-Irish clash in Limerick wouldn’t feel right without some sort of stereotype that hints towards alcohol-dependency. Luckily, if you’re the type of person who will collapse with dehydration if you get to 10.31am on a Sunday morning without an alcoholic beverage of some description, then its good news. The people who make the big decisions in Limerick have decided to let you get boozed up for this one in the pubs from 10.30am rather than the usual opening time of 12.30pm. Hooray for the Heineken Cup
The Ulstermen have claimed their fair share of victories over Munster in recent seasons, but beating the southern province in the RaboCiderProCeltic League and beating them in the Heineken Cup are two very different things. Being a local derby of sorts means it’ll be intense and probably won’t be a blowout, but Munster are the understandable favourites. Ulster have shown plenty of fighting spirit to get this far in the competition and they’ll need to do it all over again to reach the last four.
Saracens v Clermont Auvergne – Vicarage Road, Sun. 3.45pm
It’s not necessarily saving the best to last, more saving the ‘hardest to call and therefore most intriguing’ till last. The odds suggest this is the tightest of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and it’s hard to disagree. Home advantage is the big plus for Sarries, but the stereotype of French teams not being fond of travel can be parked in the case of Clermont. They’ve by and large performed consistently well in the Heineken Cup and if they underperform, it won’t be down to lumpy mattresses or the quality of English gruel.
The visitors boast the stronger squad, but they are ravaged by injuries. They’ve a long list of confirmed absentees and a seemingly ever-growing list of injury doubts. Goal-kicking scrum-half, Morgan Parra is the latest player to emerge as a fitness concern. The French side already have an injury list long enough to make the guts of a decent Fantasy Rugby team, so won’t be at full strength.
Saracens don’t have the same sort of strength in depth, but they do have a strong starting XV. John Smit is the global superstar of their grizzled and combative pack whilst Owen Farrell pulls the strings in the more youthful and exuberant back division. They’ve got the best defence in the Aviva Premiership and they’ll need it to be at it’s stingy best against the attacking talents of Clermont. At the other end, they’ll be able to ask questions of the visitors. Like a medium sized t-shirt on Smit’s bulky frame, it’s going to be very tight and possibly not very pretty.