Do or die time in the Heineken Cup
April 4, 2014
Who will be left holding the Heineken Cup at the end of the season? © Getty Images
We have reached the knockout stages of what will be the final season of Heineken Cup. While the various big wigs around Europe look to have finally thrashed out a compromise over exactly what guise the new tournament will take next season, the focus, thankfully, returns to the pitch this weekend as the rugby-watching public, players and media can take in the four mouthwatering Heineken Cup quarter-final ties.
According to Munster lock Paul O'Connell, his province have struggled this season. He claimed they haven't "played particularly well in a long time" and it was hard to put his finger on "any big performances from us in recent months". But despite his disgruntlement at how they have played, in part fuelled by their loss to Leinster at the weekend, they lie second in the PRO12 and have a home quarter-final at a ground where they have a fantastic record. There are plenty of reasons for optimism for the men in red ahead of this last eight tie.
Munster will look to Paul O'Connell for inspiration © Getty Images
For Toulouse, they come in to the game off the back of a 32-28 loss to Toulon last weekend in the Top 14 and are currently sixth in the top flight. They seem to be a far cry from the dominance European rugby was exposed to a few years back but write Toulouse off at your peril. While they lost to Connacht in the pool stages, they also went to Wembley and beat Saracens. They are an unpredictable side but have enough quality to beat any team in Europe on their day.
Weather: There is a good chance of rain in Ireland with the temperature likely to be a comfortable 13°C.
Odds: Munster are favourites at 8/15 with Toulouse at 6/4.
Prediction: Munster will beat Toulouse by about seven points.
By the time the first ball is kicked in anger on Saturday in France, it will be 1596 days since Clermont last tasted the bitterness of defeat at their home just off the Avenue de la Republique in Clermont-Ferrand. The run of 74 games unbeaten since Paul Couet-Lannes' try and Dimitri Yachvili's conversion saw Biarritz snatch a 16-13 victory back on November 21, 2009, has now painted a picture of an impenetrable fortress.
Clermont are without Sitiveni Sivivatu but they still have Napolioni Nalaga © Getty Images
But as Leicester boss Richard Cockerill has done his best to highlight this week, an unbeaten run at home can cause extra pressure on a side as players become increasingly aware of the record and, on the flip side, not wanting to play any part in its downfall. Leicester will look to harness any mind games in the run-up to Saturday's game and will take heart from their 22-16 win in the East Midlands derby last Saturday.
Clermont suffered a defeat in their last run out in the Top 14 and the Tigers will hope the loss has not angered Vern Cotter's team. In what will be Cotter's final season in charge of Clermont, his players will be doing all they can to ensure the quiet yet authoritative New Zealander bows out with some silverware to his name.
Weather: It will be around 18°C with a slight chance of rain
Odds: Clermont are clear favourites at 1/7 with Leicester available at 9/2.
Prediction: Clermont by five
Saracens are no strangers to playing in front of big crowds but they will have to tackle an altogether different proposition on Saturday evening as they look to silence one of the most vocal support in Europe. For the first time, Ulster will be playing in front of their newly redeveloped stadium with the capacity expected to just about exceed 17,000 with the full 18,000 expected to be utilised for the official opening against Leinster next month.
Saracens saw off Ulster in last season's quarter-final © Getty Images
And Ulster will hope the famous ground will play host to another memorable night. It will be the first time Ravenhill hosts a Heineken Cup quarter-final since 1999. The current crop of Ulster players are doing well and lie third in the PRO12 though they will have had their collective noses put of joint last weekend when they fell to the Blues.
For Sarries, they are riding high in the Premiership and secured maximum points in their last two top flight games. Despite flourishing in front of their record-breaking crowd at Wembley, Sarries boss Mark McCall is fully aware of what his players are likely to be facing come Saturday. "We played in front of a big crowd at Wembley, but this is going to be more intense and more hostile. There's a difference between a corporate audience and a hungry rugby public."
Weather: It is likely to rain earlier in the day so it might be damp underfoot with the temperature around 12°C.
Odds: Ulster are favourites at 4/7 with Saracens available at 11/8.
Prediction: Ulster by two
The weekend's last knockout tie will see the winners of the 2013 Heineken Cup come up against the 2009, 2011 and 2012 champions Leinster. In recent times, no one knows better than the men from Dublin what it takes to win European domestic rugby's biggest prize. But it does not come much harder than travelling to the home of Toulon.
Leinster's win over Munster will give them the perfect preparation © PA Photos
Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal has thrown his millions of euros into the team with days like this in mind. They have a team packed with world-class players and with Jonny Wilkinson expected to be back at the helm, they have a man desperate to win one last major piece of silverware before bowing out in the summer.
The same can be said for Brian O'Driscoll. He has already won the Six Nations this year and with his retirement becoming a reality in May, he will want to have one last hurrah in the tournament he has given so much to over the years.
Weather: It looks set to be a toasty 17°C.
Odds: Toulon are favourites at 4/9 with Leinster available at 9/5.
Prediction: We fancy an away win here with a big of O'Driscoll magic seeing Leinster home.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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