It might be the best ever set of Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
The presence of Saracens and Leicester as best runners-up gives a real bite to the top vs. bottom matches that have occasionally been a mismatch. That is not to say either will win at desperately difficult away venues but both travel (especially Saracens, I suspect) with more than a puncher's chance.
The Heineken kicks off on Saturday lunchtime with Munster's match against Toulouse, two of the great names of Heineken history. On paper the French visitors still have a few more names but the geographical location of the match swings it very much the way of Munster.
By not winning with a bonus point in Italy in round six, Toulouse insouciantly sent themselves to one of the worst places a visiting team could dream of going. And for Toulouse every away game is just about a nightmare. Guy Noves' team did win all their away games in the pool stages but their regular record on the road is terrible, to the extent they are currently set to compete in The Challenge Cup next season.
The win at Wembley hardly counts because the football stadium lacks any advantage for a Saracens team who see big matches turned into big family occasions and all the sting of home advantage taken away. Munster are on the road back to the big time. A narrow defeat in Dublin does nothing to undermine their confidence. They went close to beating Clermont in Bordeaux in last season's semi-final and that Clermont team was better than this Toulouse team.
It is rare Leicester approach a game expected to lose. That rare event occurs Saturday afternoon and it might just make them as dangerous an opponent as Clermont has faced at home for three quarters of a century of matches.
Quotes of the week
Munster appear to be significantly improved at half-back and with a back row capable of blunting the Louis Picamoles threat must be the Heineken's firmest favourites of the weekend... having said that Toulouse were outstanding at home to Saracens, utterly strangling them.
Next up is many people's idea of the banker. This is no insult to Leicester but the fact is Clermont are on an unbeaten run of 74 games against anyone. Leicester famously ended Munster's run in 2007 at Thomond Park but that was off the back of a dominant pack. It will not be so easy in the Auvergne. Defeat at the weekend in Brive is utterly irrelevant with Clermont confident of a home semi-final already.
The Tigers' excellence against Exeter and the well-deserved away win in Northampton are more relevant because it tells you the Tigers have what it takes to come out and attack Clermont. It is rare Leicester approach a game expected to lose. That rare event occurs Saturday afternoon and it might just make them as dangerous an opponent as Clermont has faced at home for three quarters of a century of matches.
Saturday's triple-header ends in Belfast with brand spanking new Ravenhill 'welcoming' Saracens. Ulster would have been jolted by the loss in Cardiff but undoubtedly less than wound up for that game. More important is the fitness of Ruan Pienaar. His loss would be a blow and a half. Remember how exquisitely he controlled the game against Leicester that gave Ulster the win and the home quarter-final?
Saracens are on a surge in the Premiership and playing like defeat is out of the question. But we have been here before and seen them slump in Europe.
Primarily however it has been the power of the French that has undone them. In the last three years Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse (twice) have outmuscled and outthought them at the breakdown. Ulster are many things but it's not a wine-growing region in France.
And finally to Sunday; my pick of the fabulous four quarter-finals; Toulon the champions against Leinster, the three time recent champions. Undoubtedly the media is going to turn this into a match-off between two legends of the game. Does that cover it? One of them, O'Driscoll, scored the only try in Leinster's home win against Munster while the other was not in the Toulon match-day squad.
In last year's quarter-final stage it was Jonny Wilkinson who saved his team with one of the great displays of goal-kicking. Leicester pushed them all the way; Leinster can push them that extra way into the Med and sink their hopes of a successful defence.
The Irish side will be attacked with a full frontal display of power, whether from the mighty Toulon back row or Mathieu Bastareaud through the middle. He gave O'Driscoll a few problems in Paris recently, a few more are steaming his way but Leinster, like Ireland, have the ability to withstand the test. One proviso is Cian Healy. He missed the Munster game but he must be fit for this one.
The bridesmaid tournament is The Amlin but the bridesmaids are looking good this year. Thursday night is quite an all English tussle. Sale, recent conquerors of Northampton and Bath, at home to Northampton, who have lost three straight matches and were well beaten by Leicester on Saturday.
Sale's game is based around defence and spirit. Steve Diamond has done a fine job but if Northampton are the side I think they are the recent loss should help give them a sight as to how best to find their way through Sale's tacklers. If they fail again the old questions about the tactical acumen or otherwise of the management will be brought up.
I am popping into Paris en route to Clermont, Toulon for the odd plate of snails or three for Harlequins' tough assignment against an improved Stade Francais team. Home advantage makes the Frenchmen favourites but Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Mike Brown won't be unlucky again. There are a few reservations surrounding the strength of the Harlequins pack but I take Harlequins to win as they have famously done against Stade in Paris before.
Bath versus Brive looked home-banker material until Brive beat Clermont and Bath lost at home to Sale on Friday. George Ford was fragile and needs to get back on the metaphorical horse in a hurry. As long as he bounces back, Bath will win this game; Brive are, after all, a French team on the road.
Last and, on form, least of the eight is Wasps against Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites' win at Exeter gives them some confidence on their travels while Wasps are playing some profoundly awful stuff at the moment. Logic says Gloucester but Gloucester have become anything but a logical club. The only absolute banker is that this is going to be a great weekend of European rugby.
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Hi Stuart, are you keeping up with Bristol rugby's signings, stadium change and extremely wealthy owner? Do you think they will be promoted this year and if so what are their chances of becoming one of the front runners in the Premiership again given their obvious intent and funds? Are they the next Toulon or Saracens?
STUART REPLIES: I am abreast of what is happening with Bristol although I hope Steve Lansdown's money does not have the same effect upon the city's rugby club as it has on one of their football teams. They have a favourite's chance of promotion but squad depth is not such an asset come play-offs and the all-out attacking style has failed before. If Andy Robinson maintains Bristol's extravagant attacking game all the way to the Premiership it will be a triumph for courageous rugby. Like I say, a favourite's chance but the deal's not done.
Stuart, well done to Worcester for finally getting a win - Dean Ryan seems convinced that they can stay up. Do you agree with your former Sky pundit and if so what do they need to focus on?
STUART REPLIES: James, I am far from convinced Worcester can stay up. They did win (they were down if they lost) but they and Newcastle are adrift from the rest in terms of quality. Desperation may drag them to places they have yet to visit and pull better teams down to their level but offer me evens on Worcester going down and I'll dig into the piggy bank.
Hi Stuart, I didn't see it, but can you tell me how Ulster got thrashed by Cardiff 22-5? I saw the Ulster team-sheet beforehand and it was a seriously strong line-up - do you think it was all to do with having one eye on the HC? Statistically, there is usually one away win the QFs. I can't really see where it will come this weekend. Perhaps Saracens can take Ulster or Toulouse grind a win over Munster, but I'm going for four home wins. Clermont, Ulster, Toulon and Munster for me. Cue four away win.
STUART REPLIES: Owen, I think that was the half-time score... but anyway, yes, an eye on Europe and a Blues team that has beaten Toulon this season makes the loss into just one of those things. It will boost Saracens' self-belief although it won't damage Ulster's. Leinster are my favourites for an away win with Saracens second-favourites.
Hi Stuart, just a quick mention over the alleged bite that happened over the weekend with 'suggestions' that it was Dylan Hartley. It seems that he has been named because Mallinder happened to mention that he would have a word with Hartley on the matter after the game - for no other reason than Hartley is the Captain! Do you think he is being judged because of his reputation?
STUART REPLIES: Lewis, Tom Youngs did look as if he gesticulating in Dylan Hartley's direction in the immediate aftermath of whatever happened. And yes, Jim did mention Dylan Hartley's name but by not mentioning the captaincy we media types assumed he was inferring that he too had seen the happenings on the field. People are definitely judged on reputation, on a sports field anyway. Tom Youngs alleged he was bitten but officialdom has pronounced no case; as Richard Cokerill said, Youngs must have been mistaken.
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William Sheldrake says...
I watched all three Heineken Cup matches yesterday; marvelled at Munster, prayed for Leicester (unusual that, as I have been a Bath supporter all my life!) and despaired for Ulster. As a complete neutral I felt they were robbed. Watching "that" event, and the slo-mo repeats, I could not see why the Ulster full back was given a red card: to me it was questionable that it would even earn a yellow. Both he and Alex Goode were going for the ball. The only issue was that, because Goode jumped higher, it was he who fell to earth. I can't help but feel that the red card was a knee-jerk reaction to Goode's injury, not for the offence itself. Perhaps you could comment?
Posted 11:03 6th April 2014
Jayme Mcgoldrick says...
Stuart I am a big fan of your column but I have to say the Ulster game (I am an Ulster fan) was a disgrace. Jared Payne was negligent in not looking at the player in the air but a red card was a disgrace. No way can you send off a player when there was no intent. Ended probably the only team that can challenge Lenister this season. Accidental no matter the injury never a red what is your take on it. I am livid as is anyone I have spoken to about the game. The ref has ruined the game.
Posted 06:16 6th April 2014
Mick Collyer says...
Stuart,I note your comment about the Saints " If they fail again the old questions about the tactical acumen or otherwise of the management will be brought up." Yet again the Saints have not only lost, but have not turned up, in a major contest, Leinster at home, Exeter in the LV final, Tigers at home etc. 10 games now without a win against the Tigers. There clearly seems to be problems with the management with the tactics and/or mindset at major games. The Saints have resources and facilities better than most but consistently fail, if yet again the Saints come away at the end of the season empty handed then changes should be made. What would Baxter do with the squad and resources?
Posted 12:10 1st April 2014
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