History beckons the brave
April 27, 2012
The battle for Europe's biggest club prize reaches the final four this weekend © Getty Images
The battle for the biggest prize in European club rugby will resume this weekend with two tantalising semi-finals.
Some may have only just caught their breath following a pulsating series of quarter-final clashes but you can expect another thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride as the quest for the sizeable Heineken Cup silverware reaches the penultimate hurdle.
The presence of two teams new to this stage of the competition in the form of Edinburgh - the first Scottish side to make this stage of the competition - and Clermont Auvergne along with a club determined to return to the glory days of the past and another equally driven to underline their status as a European giant makes for compelling viewing for those lucky enough to witness these battle in person or from the comfort of an armchair.
Ulster tackle Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in the first semi-final on Saturday with the odds stacked heavily in the Irish province's favour. Not only is it the first time that Edinburgh have graced the semi-finals, the hi-tech setting for the ground is a second home for many of Ulster's players. The 'hosts' have also an impressive record against their Scottish rivals this season having peppered their defence to the tune of 10 tries in their two PRO12 match-ups.
That kind of form has Edinburgh wallowing at the wrong end of the league table but we know the Edinburgh side that takes to the field in the Heineken Cup is a different beast to that which has struggled week in-week out on the domestic stage. We should have perhaps sensed that they were onto something special in Europe this season when they out-gunned Racing Metro 48-47 - a score line that still triggers a double-take - at Murrayfield back in November. But that was just one highlight of a campaign that surprised at nearly every turn. Home and away victories over Racing and London Irish served as warnings and anyone left in any doubt as to the threat they posed will have been silenced earlier this month when a heart-warming 30,000 fans flocked to a normally painfully empty Murrayfield to witness the scalping of Toulouse in the latest stunning result thrown up by this ever-captivating competition.
Replays of that heroic performance should be enough to ensure Michael Bradley's side travel in confidence and while the draw may have been kind to Ulster, the honour of hosting this tie also brings with it a great deal of pressure and expectation. Victories over Clermont and Leicester on their way to the semi-finals hinted that this Ulster side were ready to finally emerge from the shadow cast by the 1999 Heineken Cup-winning side, but like Edinburgh, it took a sensational quarter-final triumph for the wider rugby fraternity to sit up and notice. Sending Munster packing in Europe is no easy task and the fact Ulster achieved that feat at 'fortress Thomond Park' only reinforces their growing stature.
The influence of Ulster's South African contingent - including the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Johan Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg - cannot be overstated but this side still retains a strong Irish flavour with flanker Stephen Ferris and hooker Rory Best at the heart of proceedings. The decision to hand Ireland U20 captain Paddy Jackson the No.10 shirt may be seen as a gamble and it remains to be seen if he rises to the occasion. But Edinburgh boast some match-winners and game-changers of their own with David Denton and Ross Rennie -stars of this year's Six Nations in an other-wise faltering Scotland side - and the prolific Tim Visser ready to upset another high-profile favourite.
As enticing the Dublin match-up, for many, the clash of the weekend - and maybe the season - will play out at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux the following day. Leinster are attempting to become only the second side - after Leicester - to notch back-to-back titles and also their third in four years. The defending champions, and current PRO12 leaders, are riding an unbeaten run of 13 games in the competition but that will not trouble Clermont as they were the last side to get the better of them in the pool stages of last season's competition. Critics may suggest Leinster enjoyed a preferable pool draw but there are no 'gimmes' in the Heineken Cup and they were at their scintillating best in disposing of a disappointing Cardiff Blues side in the last eight.
With a long-awaited Top 14 title finally in the bag after seemingly endless agony in pursuit of the Bouclier de Brennus , Clermont attacked the Heineken Cup with renewed vigour that got the better of Leicester and Ulster in the pool stages. But like their title rivals, the quarter-finals inspired something extra special from Les Jaunards who despatched Premiership champions Saracens on their own patch. They have since extended that rich vein of form to remain on course for another Top 14 post-season while their outstanding unbeaten record at the Stade Marcel Michelin has now reached an incredible 42 games. Thankfully for Leinster, that is one hurdle they will not need to clear on Sunday.
A glittering array of rugby talent will be charged with living up to the hype in Bordeaux and they don't come any bigger than Leinster talisman Brian O'Driscoll who marked his return from a long injury lay-off with a try against the Blues. The Ireland skipper rarely fails to deliver on the big occasion so expect him to feature strongly once again although his side's fortunes may hinge on Jonathan Sexton's success at dictating matters. But the extent to which both can dominate will rely heavily on what is shaping up as a brutal battle. Throw the likes of Leinster's high-profile recruit Brad Thorn and Clermont's Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore into an intense cauldron and you can rest assured that the backs will not be the only ones providing fireworks.
Add in the intriguing coaching battle between Clermont boss Vern Cotter and his Leinster counterpart - and former assistant - Joe Schmidt and there is little doubt as to why this game is the hottest ticket in rugby this weekend.
Romain Poite will referee the first semi-final and Wayne Barnes will take charge of the second - and let's hope that is the only time they warrant a mention all weekend.
The prize awaiting the winners is a trip Twickenham on May 19 to contest the final - but who will triumph? The bookies suggest that we will be looking at an all-Ireland tournament finale but remember this is the Heineken Cup.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.