Ulster v Saracens
Top of the English Premiership plays the side that went through the Heineken Cup pool stages undefeated to claim the top qualifier spot.
The former comes into the game on the back of a convincing dispatch of Harlequins in front of a record crowd at Wembley, while the latter suffered defeat at the hands of the Cardiff Blues, the lowest side in the table (apart from the Italian sides of course).
Having adopted an excited style of running rugby this season off the back of powerful ball carriers like the Vunipola brothers, Saracens are the leading try scorers in the Premiership with 53 and will be buoyed by a rapid return to fitness for Billy Vunipola as the rampaging Old Harrovian comes back from the injury he sustained in the 6 Nations.
In contrast, Ulster sit third in the Rabo Pro12 with only 35 tries to their name in the same number of games as their English opponents. 6 Nations winners litter the side, including lock Dan Tuohy, who impressed in his cameo performances for Ireland, while Chris Henry was also a stand-out player of the tournament. A return to fitness for Stephen Ferris in the back row also provides Head Coach Mark Anscombe with a healthy selection headache.
In the backs Andrew Trimble has proved he’s one of the best wingers in Ireland – taking his opportunity of fellow Ulsterman Tommy Bowe being out injured extremely well, particularly in Paris – and on that note Tommy Bowe lines up on the other wing. Full-back Jared Payne is one of the classiest runners in the game. An eye for a gap, as well as putting other players through them, Payne is a key contributor to a lot of Ulster’s attacking play.
Both sides feature among their ranks a metronomic kicker, Ruan Pienaar for Ulster and Owen Farrell for Saracens, who will ably punish any of their opponents’ discretions, but if Saracens are able to continue their excellent run of form there could be an away win on the cards. Prediction: Saracens by 6.
Toulon v Leinster
Brian O’Driscoll meets Jonny Wilkinson in the ultimate veterans showpieces as both search to bow out in a final blaze of glory. Both are the linchpins of their respective sides and both are hanging up their boots at the end of the season and another title at the top of European rugby would be fitting for either. Actually, BOD’s already had his moment this year, so we’re supporting Jonny!
Sentiment aside, this should be a monumental tussle as the majority of the Irish national side plays a side consisting of capped players from the majority of other national sides – in fact Ireland is about the only major rugby-playing nation not represented in the ‘International All-Stars’ squad.
While other Top 14 big hitters like Toulouse and Clermont lost a number of players to the 6 Nations, the benefit of having a squad filled with such a wide-ranging group of players is that very few slunk off for international duty. As such Toulon have hit an extremely good run of form in recent weeks clocking five wins out of six in the domestic league.
For Leinster, as it was for Ireland in the 6 Nations, the set piece will be key. Leinster will be looking to secure ball at the scrum through Irish prop duo Cian Healy and Mike Ross and at the lineout through gangly lock Devin Toner, who had a strong 6 Nations both at the set-piece and in the loose. Healy faces the enormous (literally) prospect of packing down against Carl Hayman, while Toner will have a significant advantage in the lineout, not just because he’s almost 100 feet tall, but also because Toulon’s second row bruisers Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams are both out through injury. Good thing they have Danie Rossouw to call on.
The dependable Jimmy Gopperth is the choice for Leinster at fly-half to go up against the dependable Jonny Wilkinson, while Wilko will have his usual dynamic duo of the two Matts (Giteau and Bastareaud) lining up outside him in arguably the clash of the weekend. Giteau and Bastareaud up against the iconic centre pairing of Gordon D’Arcy and BOD should make for some tasty rugby.
Both sides back threes also have pace in spades (Bryan Habana only making the Toulon bench for Christ’s sake) and the full-back clash of Delon Armitage and Rob Kearneywill be intriguing. Given run of form and the wealth of talent at their disposal, Toulon could be in line for a consecutive title.
Prediction: Toulon by 2 (most likely sealed by a last-minute Jonny drop-goal).