The Heineken Cup quarters: a preview

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This coming weekend sees the eight remaining teams in European Rugby’s premier club competition fight it out for a place in the semis.

We are guaranteed one Irish team in the last four, with three of them making the quarters, but there’s a fairly even spread over the other main nations. Scotland, despite a truly dire Six Nations, could have one team left standing after this weekend. Yes it’s unlikely, but we can dream.

So here is your Saint Sport guide to the four quarter-final matches and the teams playing in them.

Edinburgh v Toulouse (Saturday 7 April, 15:00)

Edinburgh were mightily impressive in the pool stages, apparently saving their best form for Europe rather than the RaboDirect Pro12. Domestically they might sit 11th out of 12 teams, below Benetton Treviso and Connacht, but in the Heineken Cup they won all but one of their games in Pool 2, which contained Cardiff Blues, Racing Metro 92 and London Irish.

Can Greig Laidlaw inspire Edinburgh to upset Toulouse? Photo: Edinburgh Rugby

Their last match brought a welcome win (26-23 over the Scarlets) that halted their wretched seven-match losing run. They, more than most, suffered from the loss of their international players during the Six Nations. Now the squad has been given a boost by the return of Ross Rennie, David Denton, Mike Blair, Lee Jones and the like.

Another Scottish international, Greig Laidlaw, who kicked the winning points against the Scarlets and is fundamental in setting the platform for Edinburgh’s attacks, will be crucial against Toulouse. If he plays as well as he can (he was superb when I was at Murrayfield to see Edinburgh beat London Irish back in January), Edinburgh have a chance. But if the mistakes and defensive deficiencies that we saw from him in the Six Nations creep in, they will surely be ruthlessly punished.

For Toulouse are a formidable proposition. They lead the French league (Top 14) by four points and boast some of the best players in the world – captain Thierry Dusautoir, Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard – in their squad, which has many other stars in its ranks. Their scrum in particular looks very strong, and Scots need little reminder of the mauling their forwards received against the French at Murrayfield.

That’s all very well on paper. But the French side scraped into the last eight, losing two games and conceding 105 points. In fact, they only made it thanks to Harlequins’ shock loss to Connacht. They can be got at, especially on their travels, and Edinburgh have home advantage here. And with 46 of 60 Heineken Cup quarter-finals to date being won by the home side, that is not something to be discounted.

An Edinburgh win would be a shock. But if they are quick off the mark, play high-tempo and aggressive rugby and prevent Toulouse from settling, there are weaknesses in their more illustrious opponents to be exploited. However, if the Scottish curse strikes, Toulouse have the players to capitalise on mistakes; if they themselves play as we know they can, Edinburgh are in for one long struggle.

Leinster v Cardiff Blues (Saturday 7 April, 17:45)

Leinster are many people’s favourites to retain their Heineken Cup title, and I cannot see Cardiff Blues, second behind Edinburgh in the pool stages, being the team to deny them.

The Irish side, who lead the RaboDirect Pro12 by 10 points (although of course victory in that competition is decided by top four play-offs), were very impressive in their last match, an 18-9 win away to Munster.

They managed to reintegrate their Irish internationals back into the side much better than Munster, with Jonathan Sexton winning the kicking duel with Ronan O’Gara. Their all-round play was far superior, stronger in the set-pieces and more adventurous going forward – in fact they were very unlucky not to score one or two tries in tricky conditions. Even Gordon D’Arcy, who was thoroughly useless for Ireland in the Six Nations, had a good game.

And I haven’t even mentioned Brian O’Driscoll. Desperately missed by the men in green this year, he might not have the pace or sharpness of his prime, but the man is still a magician.

Do Cardiff have a hope of winning this one? Well, Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny make up an outrageously talented Welsh trio (oh wait, Warburton and Roberts are both injured…). They also have ‘enigma in a silly haircut’ Dan Parks. The match after he announced his retirement from the Scottish team, I saw this man put in an excellent display that blew away my beloved Ulster. Parks, brilliant on his day, has been far too inconsistent in recent years.

The same seems to apply to Cardiff. A patch of rotten form, beaten 31-3 by Glasgow this last weekend, would appear to have put them out of the running for a top four place. If so, the Heineken Cup is their last shot at salvaging something from this season. Will that motivation be enough?

A Welsh victory in Dublin can’t be ruled out, but I think Leinster will prove far too strong. And now Cardiff don’t even have Gavin Henson to help them – what a massive loss that is. Or not.

Munster v Ulster (Sunday 8 April, 12:45)

As I have already mentioned, Munster looked decidedly dodgy against Leinster last weekend, particularly in the line-out and (at least for most of the match) the scrum. Dropping the ball a lot didn’t exactly help, either. They might have Marcus Horan, Ronan O’Gara, Keith Earls and co back, but they sure as hell missed lock Paul O’Connell. Injured playing for Ireland against France, he remains a big doubt for this game.

Ulster won emphatically (33-17) the last time these teams met, in December, although that was at home (Ravenhill) and their trips to Thomond Park have seldom ended well. Nevertheless, they are currently on a superb run and scored six tries in their 45-7 win over the Italian side Aironi last Friday.

Centre Paddy Wallace, who has found some of his best form this season, and Ruan Pienaar, who can play scrum-half or fly-half and is a reliable kicker of points, are instrumental in this Ulster side, who also welcome pacey winger Andrew Trimble back from international duty as they battle Munster and Glasgow to finish in the RaboDirect Pro12 play-offs. Their fly-half Ian Humphreys, much like Sexton, Laidlaw and Parks, can be brilliant or terrible. He is undoubtedly talented, but poor execution will be shown up here.

Yet any match against a team as physical as Munster will be won or lost in the forwards. If Ulster can cope with them and allow their backs to flourish, they have a decent chance here. But that task has been made much more difficult by the injury sustained by flanker Stephen Ferris, the Ulstermen’s outstanding talent and probably one of the finest back-row forwards in Europe – solid defensively, an excellent ball-carrier and full of energy for the full 80 minutes across the park. Suffering ankle ligament and muscle damage against Aironi, he is a major doubt. Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has named Ferris in his provisional squad, but he is still not hopeful over his fitness.

Munster remain favourites to win this match. They have home advantage and they typically save their best performances for European games (they won six out of six in Pool 1 this season). The likely absence of Ferris will hit Ulster hard, but they are not without hope. If their forward pack, led by Johann Muller and Rory Best, can keep Munster’s (which may well be missing its own leader, O’Connell) at bay, they might just have the extra spark in the backs to pull off a historic win.

How will Ulster cope in the likely absence of Stephen Ferris? Photo: ulsterrugby.com

Saracens v Clermont Auvergne (Sunday 8 April, 16:30)

The final quarter-final sees second in England take on second in France, and it would seem to be a tough one to call.

Saracens’ last match saw them edged out 24-19 by Aviva Premiership leaders Harlequins, but they still look good to keep their top four place and so make the play-offs. In addition, they have excelled in Europe, comfortably topping a pool that contained Biarritz and the Ospreys.

An ambitious club, Saracens won the Premiership last season and have made the Heineken Cup their priority this year. They will hope that Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt continue where they left off for England during the Six Nations. However, they conceded three tries in that Harlequins defeat at Wembley and further defensive lapses against free-scoring Clermont would not be good news.

The French side, four points behind Toulouse and 11 ahead of Toulon in the Top 14, had the best points difference in the pool stages (215 for, 69 against), although in a group with whipping-boys Aironi, who they beat 54-3 and 82-0, that is not hugely surprising. They lost twice on their travels, to Ulster and Leicester, as they only just topped Pool 4 ahead of the Irish province.

Their squad does feature well-known names like Nathan Hines and Lee Byrne, although it is the centre partnership of Wesley Fofana and captain Aurelien Rougerie that really stands out. If Fofana repeats the form he showed for France in the Six Nations, Saracens will have to show plenty of defensive nous to keep him from crossing their try-line.

Clermont are, however, fretting over the fitness of Morgan Parra. A fine scrum-half and virtually unerring with the boot, he would be a big miss for the French team. If Parra doesn’t make it, Clermont are in trouble and Saracens will have a pre-match boost.

If I were to place a bet on the outcome of this match, I’d put my money on Saracens. Clermont have lost two of three away games played in the competition this season and Saracens – if they can keep Fofana quiet – have their own attacking potential to hurt the visitors. If it comes down to who nails their kicks, Clermont will miss Parra if he doesn’t make it, while Farrell has shown for England that he can keep his composure when it matters.

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So there you have it. I reckon we have an exciting weekend ahead, with the potential for some shocks. If I had to predict a final four I’d go with Toulouse, Leinster, Munster and Saracens, but I think Edinburgh and Ulster in particular have more than a fighting chance.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my predictions, or do you think I’m going to look a right numpty when Dan Parks stands grinning with the cup at Twickenham in May?

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