Which big dogs will be let off the leash in the Heineken Cup this weekend? Here are just four ultra-competitive players to look out for in the quarter-finals
This set of Heineken Cup quarter-finals is possibly the most enticing last eight ever assembled. Each of the four ties is jam-packed with stellar talent and most of the continent’s biggest names.
As the pain-staking European saga edges closer to a resolution, the weekend feels like a something of a celebration of this wonderful tournament. But who are the figures that will decide these high-stakes encounters? Here is a run-down of our ones to watch.
Louis Picamoles has recovered from a hip complaint to anchor the scrum, while livewire teenager Yacouba Camara brings pace and industry. Then there is a 123-kilogram Samoan behemoth to fill the final back-row berth. Predominantly deployed at lock, Tekori is the polar opposite of angular, awkward adversary Peter O’Mahony – Munster’s jackalling talisman – and marries brutish brawn in the contact area with subtle offloading skills. He may become exposed if the contest opens up, but the early stages at Thomond Park will be tight. And eye-wateringly physical. Expect Tekori to be prominent.
Clermont v Leicester (Stade Marcel Michelin, Saturday 4pm)
In Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, England boasted the best lock partnership of the recent Six Nations. Even then, Dave Attwood – magnificent off the bench – was not far off winning a starting spot. It speaks volumes for how well Slater is playing then, that the burly Leicester man is pushing this trio for Test involvement in New Zealand. Another colossal showing against Northampton confirmed as much.
Toby Flood’s decision to leave Welford Road and his subsequent dip in form put Richard Cockerill in a bit of a quandary just after Christmas. Robust as ever, Leicester’s director of rugby was not afraid to make forthright calls. Young Welshman Owen Williams was handed a starting berth – an inspired decision given his assured displays since – and Slater took over as skipper. It has been a flawless fit, and sparked Tigers’ traditional end-of-season surge.
The Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin is an intimidating stronghold that has seen 74 successive Clermont victories. For all their eye-catching quicksilver out wide in the likes of Wesley Fofana (who scored a try on his return from injury this weekend), Les Jaunards lay foundations with ferocity up front. Thomas Domingo, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire and Fritz Lee are truly monstrous men and it is not without justification that Leicester are an astronomical 11/2 with most bookies. But that’s how they like it. Slater possesses a considerable streak of mongrel and won’t back down. His teammates won’t either.
Ulster v Saracens (Saturday, 6.30pm)
In years gone by, there hasn’t been a great deal of subtlety about Saracens.It’s fair to say that they have preferred to batter the front door down than sneak through the back gate. With a pack that includes the Vunipola brothers, George Kruis and co., power remains a huge part of their game. Since September though, there has been another dimension. Enhanced off-loading skills have injected dynamism and Owen Farrell looks capable of creating things.
John Afoa, Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller must be at their very best for Ulster, using the template of their superb performance at Welford Road back in January. That day, Leicester got crowded behind the gainline and had no answer as claustrophobia descended. Amid the chaos and collisions, a diminutive No 9 called the shots.
Pienaar is a supreme scrum-half whose game management – deciding when to look for territory, when to punch holes around the fringes and when go wide – is second to none. His kicking is world-class too. From the tee he rarely misses, from the box he sets targets and encourages chasers to contest. Without disrespecting Michael Heaney, the South African’s presence was sorely missed in the recent loss to Cardiff Blues. He’s back for this humungous occasion and will be a pivotal figure in Ravenhill’s hostile atmosphere.
Toulon v Leinster (Sunday 4.30pm)
Retiring icons Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O’Driscoll will – to their cringing discomfort – dominate the build-up to this seismic clash between the two sides that have clinched four of the five Heineken Cups since 2009. However, when all the fanfare is over and these awesome sides finally go at it, another wily veteran could have a decisive say.
Many raised eyebrows at Leinster’s signing of Gopperth when Johnny Sexton hopped across The Channel. In theory, the former Newcastle Falcons points machine was supposed to provide back-up as Ian Madigan fulfilled his burgeoning potential. For whatever reason, that hasn’t quite happened this term and Gopperth has been extremely important to Matt O’Connor, especially in away games. In fact, the Dubliners would not have reached the last eight without a two-try, 21-point haul from their experienced Kiwi in Castres during the group stage.
In analysis this week, Gopperth will almost certainly have reviewed the way Leicester and Toby Flood played at the Stade Mayol at this stage almost exactly a year ago. While Tigers eventually lost after Jonny Wilkinson and Chris Masoe woke up, the first half-hour was near perfect. Flood hushed a hostile crowd by playing the corners, maneuvering the plodding opposition pack and smashing over goals from everywhere. The East Midlanders led 9-0 without breaking sweat. Gopperth has precisely the right pragmatic skill-set to carry out a repeat and bring Leinster back to Dublin for the semi.