Ahead of this weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finals, Rugby World runs the rule over the French contenders…
No one club has dominated the Top 14 this season, with the three French teams in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals all showing themselves fallible. Then again, they’ve also played some superb rugby at times and their opponents on Saturday will have to be at their best if they’re to progress to the semi-finals…
The reigning champions welcome Leinster to the Stade Mayol on Sunday, a week after their dramatic 32-28 victory over Toulouse in Marseille. Star of that show was Frederic Michalak, the veteran fly-half scoring 27 points including the second of Toulon’s two tries.
The previous week Michalak – for whom the word ‘mercurial’ could have been invented – looked lively against Clermont and he has no doubt why he’s hit form at this late stage of the season. “I’m in good shape. I no longer have any niggles,” he says. “That’s allowed me to be at 100% and to play without apprehension.”
The fact he’s been given a run in the No 10 shirt – a position in which, he says, he “feels at ease” – is no coincidence after 18 months playing for Toulon mostly at scrum-half. Nonetheless, it’s expected that Jonny Wilkinson, absent from the Toulouse game with a thigh strain, will return to the starting XV for the visit of Leinster.
Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal is rare among his peers in French rugby in attaching as much importance to the Heineken Cup as to the Top 14, and though he would love to do the double this season, he sees this quarter-final as an opportunity to make a statement.
“We want to confirm that we’re not European champions by chance,” Boudjellal told a local paper this week. “That we’re capable of dominating European rugby. I’m not saying we’re there but we want to show that Toulon have the dimensions to become a European giant.”
Leicester head to Clermont on Saturday with the statistics stacked against them. Not only do the Heineken Cup record books show that in 68 quarter-final encounters 51 have been won by the home side, but the Tigers travel to the toughest venue in Europe. The last time Clermont lost at the Stade Marcel-Michelin was in November 2009 (to Biarritz in the Top 14), and since then the men in yellow and blue have compiled a 74-match winning streak.
Admittedly Clermont suffered a surprise 26-24 defeat away at Brive last week, but they were without Julien Bonnaire, Alexandre Lapandry, Julien Bardy, Jamie Cudmore, Vincent Debaty and Sitiveni Sivivatu. All are available for selection on Saturday, and all are likely to help Clermont make it 75 games on the bounce at the Michelin.
Of the three French teams left in the tournament, Toulouse face the toughest task in travelling to Munster. Lying sixth in the Top 14 with only 11 victories from 23 matches, the four-times champions will be firm underdogs ahead of Saturday’s clash at Thomond Park. “It’s a major challenge,” admitted Toulouse coach Guy Noves this week. “We know it’s going to be hard to get back up (from the defeat to Toulon) but we’re going to try to do it.”
Hardly a full-throated battle cry from the veteran coach, who perhaps has prioritised the Top 14 over the Heineken Cup in the final weeks of the season. Toulouse are by no means certain to qualify as one of the purported seven French teams for Europe’s showpiece competition next season. Their total of 58 points is only three more than ninth-placed Brive and with only two wins in their last seven league matches Noves knows that the remaining three Top 14 encounters are all must-win games.
As for the Munster match, Noves admits that “to win over there would be a huge, huge achievement…(and) if we lose in putting in a good performance it will allow us to say that the European Cup was not our priority.”