Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals: Preview
2nd April 2014
Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals: Preview
As European rugby's top-tier tournament comes down to the last eight teams, Sports4Bars looks ahead to the four momentous quarter-final clashes including the Toulon v Leinster tie featuring two retiring legends of the game
Irish rugby experienced a massive lift last month with the men in green clinching the Six Nations title and now many of the players who helped secure the trophy will be back in action in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals this weekend, three Irish provinces - Leinster, Munster and Ulster - having reached the last eight of the competition alongside three French and two English clubs.
The clash between unbeaten Ulster, as No 1 seeds, and Saracens, will give the Irish province the chance to avenge their 27-16 defeat at the same stage in front of a crowd of a vociferous 49,762 at Twickenham last season. This time, though, the game will be on home soil for in-form Ulster - the first time they have managed to secure a home quarter-final since 1998. That season they beat Toulouse in the last eight, Stade Francais in the semi-finals and Colomiers in the final at Lansdowne Road to become the first Irish team to lift the European crown.
All the three other quarter-finals are all new fixtures for this stage of the competition, although the clash between Munster and Toulouse at Thomond Park will be a repeat of the 2008 final at the Millennium Stadium when Munster won the title for the second time. Expect a mighty tussle between two giant packs who revel in the physical aspects of the game.
Meanwhile, the meeting between No 2 seeds ASM Clermont Auvergne, last season's runners-up, and Leicester Tigers will give Richard Cockerill the chance to go back to his former club. Last season the Tigers were beaten 21-15 in Toulon and were also beaten in France in the 1997/98 quarter-finals in Pau.
Reigning champions Toulon have yet to lose a Heineken Cup tie at their fortress-like home at Stade Mayol in ten matches. It will be their first meeting in Europe with three-time champions Leinster and will see any number of thrilling head-to-heads between two sides packed with international talent.
There is also an added frisson with this being one of the final games involving two of the all-time greats of modern rugby, Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll. Both legends are hanging up their boots at the end of the season and would dearly love to add another Heineken Cup title to their tally of honours before bowing out. Ireland were able to give O'Driscoll a fairytale ending to his international career with that title win but can Leinster do the same in the Heineken Cup? Certainly, Wilkinson for one will be using every scrap of his experience to make sure that scenario doesn't play out as he attempts to sign off his career in fitting style.
Leinster coach Matt O'Connor is certainly expecting a mighty test at Toulon against an all-star team. "At the start of the year one of our goals as a squad and as a management team was to qualify for the Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals and we've done that as pool winners. It has taken a big effort from the players to come through a tough group with five wins out of six and they deserve great credit for that," he says.
"There are no easy games in the Heineken Cup and a trip to Toulon is further proof of that. They have a fantastic squad of players and their form in the Heineken has been excellent with only one loss in a group containing Cardiff Blues, Exeter and Glasgow meaning they have earned their home quarter final.
"I know from the mentality of my players that they want to be tested against the best and ultimately if we are to progress in this competition then we have to play and beat the best and I am confident that we have the capabilities to do that."
Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals:
Saturday April 5
Munster v Toulouse
1.30pm Sky Sports 2 HD
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers
3.45pm Sky Sports 2 HD
Ulster v Saracens
6.30pm Sky Sports 2 HD
Sunday April 6
Toulon v Leinster
4.30pm, Sky Sports 3 HD