Rugby World columnist Stephen Jones looks ahead to this weekend's four Heineken Cup quarter-finals – and makes his predictions…
Munster v Toulouse Saturday 5 April, 1.30pm, Live on Sky Sports 2
It might be considered in France a treasonable act to declare it, but Toulouse coachGuy Novès has surely had his day. The great French club still have two international-class players in almost every position but some days they refuse to become switched on.
Munster are the exact opposite. With Paul O’Connell defying the years so beautifully, Munster have talismen, intensity and staying power. They do not remotely have the same class as Toulouse, which makes you dream of a side that combines the pedigree of the French club with the passion of the Irish club. That combined team could dominate the tournament until kingdom come, or until O’Connell retires – whichever is the sooner.
Are Toulouse bothered? They are certainly good enough to win, but there is always the chance that they will be kicked out, in one sense (place-kicking) literally. The pretenders to the throne of the departed Ronan O’Gara have the chance to crown themselves. Close.
Predicted winner: Toulouse
Clermont v Leicester Saturday 5 April, 4pm, Live on Sky Sports 2
The heart still bleeds for Clermont and their magnificent supporters. For me, their fans are the best in the tournament and, they seemed to fill about nine-tenths of the Aviva Stadium for last year’s final against Toulon. They also dominated about nine-tenths of the game, and it is to their credit that they have bounced back from that loss this season in the league and the Heineken Cup to become real contenders. Clermont are the best team in the competition, although that does not necessarily mean they will win it.
Take Leicester away from the raucous Welford Road and they aren’t nearly so deadly. Against Ulster, neither Ben Youngs nor Toby Flood could give them any sort of edge. Indeed, it is a long time since Leicester’s play in attack was anything to write home about.
It would be very surprising if their formidable willpower is enough to shake the French team burning with a desire to right the wrongs of last season.
Predicted winner: Clermont
Ulster v Saracens Saturday 5 April, 6.30pm, Live on Sky Sports 2
Saracens fought back so well in their pool after an early home defeat by Toulouse that they marched to France with some confidence in a winner-tops-pool match. But they could not break out of the grip of a much-improved and deeply pragmatic Toulouse team, and therefore they were shunted through into the last eight only as a best runner-up.
Ulster passed their own pool challenge – away to Leicester – with flying colours. With Ruan Pienaar orchestrating, they eventually saw the Tigers off with something to spare.
Saracens will not be worried by the strength of the home support at Ravenhill, but whether they have the scoring power to cash in on periods of pressure is another matter. If you take it for granted that the home side will be awarded a minimum of six kickable penalties and that Pienaar will put over most of them, then you see the size of the Saracens task.
Predicted winner: Ulster
Toulon v Leinster Sunday 6 April, 4.30pm, Live on Sky Sports 3
Another fascinating tie because the holders of the Heineken Cup have not quite been themselves this season. It is likely to be a contest between Jonny Wilkinson’s boot – and there are suggestions that his brilliant early-season form is now waning – and Leinster’s ability to score through positive attacking play.
Toulon will need to choose their first team and stick to it; they will need all the old veterans in their squad to stay the course, and Bakkies Botha to be at his stroppy best. Leinster have the extra goal that any game now could be Brian O’Driscoll’s last hurrah in European competition, in which both he and his club have played at rarefied heights.
Toulon, if they are on their game, may sneak it but this is the most difficult quarter-final to predict, and if Leinster’s attacking machine is purring, it may yet put them beyond the range of Wilkinson from the kicking tee.
Predicted winner: Leinster
This article orignally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Rugby World. Find out how to download back issues of Rugby World here.