Matthew Morrow previews this weekend’s Heineken Cup quarter-finalsThe return of the Heineken Cup provides a welcome distraction for Irish rugby, following a disastrous Six Nations campaign that will, in all likelihood, cost Declan Kidney his job. Munster and Ulster carry Irish hopes going into the quarter-finals, with the promise of a ‘home’ final in the Aviva Stadium providing extra motivation for these two teams. This all means that the pressure is on for those players hoping to book themselves a flight to Australia as part of the impending Lions tour.
Traditionally, home advantage is a significant one in the quarter-final stage, and that is reflected in the fact that all four home teams are the bookmakers’ favourites for their respective ties. However, given Ulster’s win at Thomond Park and Clermont’s demolition of Saracens in London 12 months ago, away teams will look forward to these clashes with renewed hope and confidence.
Ulster’s clash with Saracens has been switched to Twickenham, scene of the northern men’s dismantling at the hands of Leinster in last year’s final. Ulster have been playing some terrific rugby this season, although their progress has been hampered by call-ups to the Ireland squad as well as a huge injury list. There has been a notable drop off in their performances in recent weeks, especially against supposed lesser sides Edinburgh and Treviso.
With Craig Gilory, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson all benefiting from time in the green jersey, as well as the big game temperament of Ruan Pienaar and the leadership of Johann Muller and Rory Best, Ulster will be confident of beating a Saracens team, although not as confident as they would have been before the Six Nations.
The Saracens game plan is based on set-piece organisation and Owen Farrell pulling the strings at outhalf. They tend to play quite a limited game, with an emphasis on kicking and territory, despite the presence of Alex Goode and Chris Ashton in their back three. The key for Ulster will be to do what they did at Thomond Park last year, and get out to an early lead, forcing Saracens to chase the game, which they will not be as comfortable doing as other teams.
If Ulster can get ahead early, then they should back themselves to win the game. On a side-note, Jackson’s mediocre kicking against Edinburgh at the end of March will, in all probably, see more-accomplished Pienaar take over the place-kicking duties once more.
The next Anglo-Irish tie pits Harlequins, coached by the excellent Conor O’Shea, against a Munster side who scraped into the quarter-finals ahead of their provincial counterparts Leinster. O’Shea has extracted the maximum from his squad in London and they will be heavy favourites for this encounter.
Rob Penney still hasn’t entirely settled at Munster, although the recent return of Paul O’Connell has provided a welcome boost. Ronan O’Gara will look to prove that Kidney made the wrong call in dropping him from the Irish squad, and his matchup against Nick Evans will go a long way in deciding this encounter.
Without Simon Zebo, Munster will look to Keith Earls and Casey Laulala to provide a spark in the backline. A few years ago, this game would have set-up for Munster to win behind a dominant forward performance, led by O’Connell, and O’Gara kicking everything in sight. Now, with Father Time rapidly catching up on these two great players, it looks a bridge too far for this Munster team.
The all French quarter-final of Clermont and Montpellier looks to be heavily favoured towards the home team, who have a formidable record at their home ground. Despite it being a Lions year, and the fact that the Irish provinces are playing for a ‘home’ final, Clermont are probably the most motivated side left in the competition following their heartbreaking defeat to Leinster in the semi-final stage last year.
In particular, Wesley Fofana will be keen to makes amends for losing the ball over the try-line in the dying moments of that game. With further star quality provided by Morgan Parra, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Aurelien Rougerie, it is hard to not look past Clermont, for both this game and the whole tournament. Montpellier will be no pushovers though, with Francois Trinh-Duc and Johnny Beattie playing at a high standard, they should at least ensure that Clermont have to go and win the game on their own merits.
The fourth quarter-final pits Leicester against the financial giants of world rugby; Toulon. Toulon have assembled a squad to try and do the double of a Top 14 Championship and a Heineken Cup victory, and they hope to do it as soon as possible. Their squad is filled with world class players in every position, and they have recently added former Leinster favourite Rocky Elsom to their forwards, where he will play alongside Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Carl Hayman and Bakkies Botha.
Behind the scrum, Jonny Wilkinson is playing to an exceptionally high standard again this year, which has allowed former Wallaby Matt Giteau to excel as the playmaker, while Freddie Michalak should find comfort and form in his transfer back to scrum-half. Leicester will need a huge performance, with Tom Croft and Martin Castrogiavanni expected to lead the way up front. The matchup between Manu Tualigi and Mathieu Bastareaud will not be for the faint hearted.
Ultimately, both Toulon and Clermont are looking very, very strong for this year’s competition and with the draw pitting them in separate semi-finals, should they both win their last eight encounters, we could be on for an all French final in the Aviva Statdium come May.