The business end of the Heineken Cup is upon us and as ever there are some mouth-watering fixtures to look forward to. It seems a life time since the final pool games were staged – in fact it’s 10 weeks. While this is a long hiatus, it may in fact add to the anticipation ahead of the weekend.
Edinburgh v Stade Toulouse
Edinburgh will be comforted by the lack of correlation between 6N’s and HC performance and encouraged by their efforts in the pool stages. Their performance in this competition has been the highlight of a dismal season for Scottish rugby. With home advantage on Saturday they will be looking to be the first Scottish side to appear in a Heineken semi-final.
Toulouse, however, are the most successful European team with 4 Heineken Cup wins to their name. Ably led by Thierry Dusautoir, the French side will be looking to contain Dave Denton in the Edinburgh back row and also keep a lid on the vocal Murrayfield crowd. Toulouse’s experience at winning knockout Heineken matches is likely to see them repeat their quarter final over Edinburgh in 2004.
Leinster v Cardiff Blues
Wales’ recent Grand Slam took a physical toll on some of Cardiff’s leading game breakers. With Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts ruled out through injury Cardiff are facing a massive battle to overcome the reigning champions at the Aviva stadium. Gethin Jenkins will be welcomed back and Leigh Halfpenny will have to repeat the heroics he performed in the red jersey if Cardiff are to get a result.
It’s ironic that as Brian O’Driscoll returns from injury his Lions midfield partner Roberts faces a similarly long lay-off. The 2013 Lions may be beneficiaries of the enforced break both players will have had this year. Leinster are unbeaten in their last 12 Heineken Cup matches and it will take a monumental effort from a depleted Cardiff to prevent that run being extended this weekend.
Munster v Ulster
This is perhaps the most enthralling of the quarter-finals. Injuries may again play a significant part in the outcome of this game with question marks continuing over the fitness of Paul O’Connell, and Stephen Ferris looking unlikely to play. Both men have a monumental presence within their respective packs. Munster emerged from the pool stages of the competition as the only team with a 100% record but will have received a wakeup call after their defeat by Leinster last weekend.
Ulster will be aware of the fortress that is Thomond Park. They will also be aware of the ability of the Munster team to find levels of inner strength in key games unlike any other team in the competition. This will be the first time that the two teams have met in the Heineken Cup, and Munster will be aiming to make it 10 wins from 13 appearances in the quarter-finals. Ulster meanwhile will be using their 1999 HC victory as motivation to pull off a famous victory in Limerick on Sunday.
Saracens v Clermont Auvergne
In winning Pool 4 Clermont scored more points and conceded fewer than any other team in the competition. The statistics were distorted however by two crushing wins over Aironi and don’t take make reference to the defeats inflicted by Ulster and Leicester.
Saracens may have filled Wembley last weekend but the defeat to Harlequins will have taken some of the shine from the experience. As the club continues negotiations with RFU over Andy Farrell’s likely departure the focus this weekend will have to be 100% on the biggest game the club has played in years.
The battle between Brad Barritt and Aurelien Rougerie will be keenly contested but injury may rule Morgan Parra out of contention. Owen Farrell will look to continue his form of the 6 Nations but that in itself will not be enough to get Saracens over the line. Vern Cotter will ensure his side is up for the visit to Vicarage Road and the steely determination he has introduced to Clermont may be sufficient to see them through to their first semi-final appearance.
JG Predictions: Toulouse, Ulster, Leinster & Clermont