A look ahead to the first two Heineken Cup quarter finals this weekend.
Munster v Toulouse
Toulouse are sort of there … or there abouts.
But boasting the vast majority of the French international back line with former All Blacks Luke McAlister and Hosea Gear thrown in for good measure, they should really be better. Add in a pinch of Louis Picamoles, a dash of Chiliboy Ralepelle and a sprig of Patricio Albacete and you have a recipe for a squad almost as star-studded as Toulon. You wonder, therefore, why the side are currently 6th in the Top 14, with only 11 victories from 23 matches. Equal on points difference with Bordeaux and Stade Francais, Toulouse are currently far from securing a Top 14 play-off place and qualifying for the European top flight competition next season.
Turning the attention to Europe, you wonder why they’re about to play an away quarter-final.
While the four-time Champions produced a memorable performance in the pool stages to beat Saracens at Wembley, with Connacht and Zebre also in the group, the points should have been there for the taking. Not so. Toulouse lost at home to Connacht before failing to secure an important bonus point away against Zebre.
As well as four Heineken Cup triumphs since 1993, long-serving coach and former player Guy Novès has also lead the side to ten French league titles, including back-to-back in 2011 & 2012, but the side has failed to click this season.
Conversely, Munster, with only a handful of international ‘stars’, narrowly trail Leinster in the Rabo Pro12 and faced a tougher route to the Heineken Cup knock-out stages through Edinburgh, Gloucester and Perpignan. But in the seemingly ageless Paul O’Connell, the tireless Peter O’Mahony (one of the stand-out players of the 6 Nations), and a talented back line including Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, Munster have a core of Irish players that embody the passion that runs through the club.
Toulouse, struggling with a couple of injuries to big name players, face the challenge of travelling to the hostile environment of Thomond Park. They’ll likely be undaunted by this mammoth task but as the French international side proved in the 6 Nations, their undoubted class has a tendency to turn into something approaching shambolic when playing away from home.
On paper, a full-strength Toulouse side should walk this fixture but the intensity, desire and passion of the Irish should see them through. Prediction: Munster by 8.
Clermont v Leicester
Clermont don’t lose at home. Simples.
At least, not in the last 74 games. So they welcome Leicester to the Stade Marcel-Michelin as firm favourites. Possibly the toughest venue to play at in Europe, Les Jaunards have racked up a winning streak at home stretching back to November 2009. Under Vern Cotter, soon to be making a trip north to take over the unenviable task of the day-to-day management of Scotland, Clermont have risen to one of the powerhouses of European rugby, currently sitting one point behind Montpellier in second place in the Top 14.
The form of visitors Leicester is, as always, peaking as we approach the business end of the season and the timing of having Manu Tuilagi back in the fold couldn’t be better. While down the England second row pecking order, Ed Slater is emerging as a powerful presence as a captain that Richard Cockerill can build his side around and young talent coming through the ranks in the form of Owen Williams, who has overtaken Toby Flood as first choice fly-half, has the composure to put his team in the right places on the pitch.
On the wing, Vereniki Goneva is on scintillating form for the Tigers – he was recently awarded Aviva Prem player of the month for February – but it’s the firepower on the opposite flanks that is mesmerising.
The pairing of Napolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu has been tearing up opposition defences all season. Nalaga led the side’s try tally in the pool stages and Sivivatu leads the clean breaks, offloads and carries stats of the tournament so far. Inside them, a combination of Wesley Fofana, Aurelien Rougerie and Regan King poses an almost equally potent attacking threat and the backs are ably given their go-forward by grunt in the form of Nathan Hines, Jamie Cudmore, Damien Chouly et al.
Despite a recent win in the Midlands derby, Ed Slater’s men will have to find another gear if they are to break that daunting winning streak. Prediction: Clermont by 10.