From Rugby World reader, Kate Bamber
The much anticipated Heineken Cup semi-finals roll into town weekend. Toulouse take on reigning champions Leinster, while Munster travel to Spain to take on Biarritz.
They really are two potentially cracking games: Ireland v France x 2.
The Heineken Cup road to the final in Paris has been spectacular this season, with almost every game straight out of the top drawer.
But will we see an all Ireland final or an all French affair? The closer we get to the final the more difficult it is to predict the winner – such is the quality in this competition.
That’s not going to stop me from giving it a go, of course.
Toulouse v Leinster
Current champions Leinster squeaked past Clermont Auvergne in the semi-finals, thanks to a classy kicking display from fly-half Jonny Sexton.
But that’s only half the story of their 29-28 win at the RDS. Brock James, Sexton’s opposite number, handed Leinster the win after his epically dire kicking performance beat even Tim Henman in the choking stakes. James has been banging over kicks from all over the pitch this season, but his boot/bottle left him and he missed five penalties, one conversion and two easy drop goals. By my calculations, that’s 23 points that went begging.
Leinster did look classy in attack, with powerful Jamie Heaslip thundering over for two tries. But Michael Cheika’s men will have to up the ante if they are to beat Toulouse on their home turf, and a raft of injuries to key players won’t help.
Wunderkind Jonny Sexton is a major doubt as he recovers from a fractured jaw which he suffered in the win over Clermont. Full back Rob Kearney looks likely to miss the game with a dodgy ankle, and prop CJ van der Linde is also a doubt. Naturally, decrepit old Brian O’Driscoll is nursing a couple of niggles, but when has a pesky injury stopped him from putting in a top class performance?
But these are problems Leinster could do without. The Dubliners need to field all their star players to snatch a win in the south of France. Toulouse’s annihilation of Stade Francais in the second half of their quarter final was spectacular to watch. Yannick Jauzion weaved his irrepressible magic and his team waltzed into the next round.
And Jauzion isn’t the only match winner in the Toulouse side. Cedric Heymans, Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde, David Skrela, Vincent Clerc, Clermont Poitreneaud and not forgetting France captain Thierry Dusautoir are all in the squad. Not bad, not bad at all.
If this game was being played at the RDS and if Leinster had their first choice team all fit, then I would be inclined to lean towards a Leinster win.
But with key Leinster players only likely to feature when the cameras pick them out in the stands, and with Toulouse on home turf, I think the French will triumph. Sorry Leinster.
My prediction: Toulouse to win by 12.
Biarritz v Munster
The second semi-final Gallic/Celtic clash sees the Thomond Park faithful travel en masse to San Sebastian to see the med in red mount their next assault on the road to Paris.
In the quarter finals, Munster brushed aside pretenders to the crown Northampton, while Biarritz saw off the visiting Ospreys in a blistering match. This game promises to be another epic battle
When these two sides met at the Millennium Stadium in the 2005/6 final a Peter Stringer try clinched the 23-19 win for the men from the emerald isle. That day also saw a 100% kicking performance from Ronan O’Gara to steer his team to their first Heineken Cup win.
Skipper Paul O’Connell misses this match as he struggles with the groin injury that has ruled him out since the Six Nations clash with Scotland. Biarritz will be without France star Damian Traille who has a shoulder injury. But fear not, Munster fans, for Ronan and Strings are in the squad and will no doubt be pumped up to repeat the victory in Cardiff from four years ago.
As for my prediction?
It’s tough. With Munster’s pedigree and history in this competition it’s hard to bet against them, even away from Thomond Park. They travelled to Perpignan in the pool stages and ran riot, so games on the road in France (or in this case, Spain) hold no fear.
My prediction: Munster to win by 6.
But what do you think?