Munster V Toulouse:
This is a clash of two of the great teams in Heineken Cup history. Both teams have had patchy form in recent times and Toulouse are just about hanging on to a play-off spot in the Top 14. But the Heineken Cup seems to bring out the best in both of these clubs so it will be an intriguing battle to open the weekend action.
Munster have always had the capacity to deliver the big performances especially at home and the home advantage is huge in this game. Toulouse will have no doubt they will require big performance to get a result in Thomond Park. It will be a war of attrition and physicality will be off the charts.
Toulouse will try to bully Munster and if they succeed they will win. But it is extremely unlikely Munster will allow themselves to be pushed around in their own back yard. Once they meet Toulouse head on in the physicality stakes it is hard to see Toulouse getting the upper hand on the scoreboard.
Clermont V Leicester:
Leicester’s experience in the Heineken Cup and their recent run of good form will give them every confidence heading to France. They are used to wearing teams down by physically dominating their opposition. But Clermont are themselves a hugely physical team and have a home record that is the envy of every team in Europe.
Both teams are not dissimilar in their styles, using big physical runners to damage the defence before moving the ball wide into space. Also, a huge emphasis is placed on dominating the opposition at scrum time. It is a style of direct no nonsense rugby and most teams find it difficult to cope with it over eighty minutes.
But Clermont’s record at Stade Marcel Michelin may be the tipping point in their favour.
Ulster V Saracens:
Ulster’s form has recently been spotty and on paper Saracens, who are dominating the Aviva Premiership, should be favourites to get a result at Ravenhill. But this is a do or die season for Ulster in terms of their development as a team. They have a number of players leaving at the end of the season and it is the 1st game at a newly refurbished Ravenhill.
If any team are in a situation where losing isn’t an option it is Ulster. For that reason and with so many chips on the table Ulster will find some way of winning the game. It may not be a pretty victory, but none of the Ravenhill faithful will care a jot as long as Ulster progress to the semi-finals.
Although apart from their current form there is something else in Saracens favour and that is there isn’t really any major pressure on them. That may be enough to allow them to relax and play with freedom. Unlike Ulster, who must be feeling the pressure, with so much at stake for them. But having no option but to win should be enough to get Ulster the result they dearly need.
Toulon V Leinster:
This could be the tie of the weekend. Both teams play to run as much as possible and weather permitting it could be a free flowing encounter. Toulon have huge depth in their squad and immense experience and despite missing Bakkies Botha they will cope without too much difficulty.
Unlike Leinster, who could be much more disrupted by the absence of Brian O’Driscoll and Martin Moore. O’Driscoll’s, despite his impending retirement, is still playing sublime rugby. But his experience would be missed to an even greater degree should he fail to recover from his injury in time for the game.
Even with everybody on deck Leinster are in no doubt they will have to bring their “A Game” to progress. Even then, it may not be enough to get a result.
Three Irish teams in the Heineken Cup semi-finals is a lofty goal. But that may be a bridge too far even for this Leinster team.