The Heineken Cup serves up an Easter weekend bonanza as the quarter finals pits the top 8 teams in the competition against each other with all to play for in each game.
O’Connell: a Munster victory and Lions captaincy in the bag?
Whilst it’s difficult to pick a “tie of the round” with heavy clashes including Cardiff v Toulouse, Bath v Leicester, Munster v Ospreys and Quins v Leinster, it’s likely that all eligible Lions will be doing their utmost to impress an on looking Ian McGeechan as the weeks steadily count down to the squad announcement.
And Ian McGeechan will be keeping a close eye on the newly crowned Irish Grand Slammers – with plenty of them in action for both Munster and Leinster.
Munster have a tough fixture against the ever impressive Ospreys, however, Munster won 25-21 at the Ospreys earlier this season and have an impressive record against the region in the Heineken Cup. In addition, not many teams travel to Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup and snatch a win – in fact only Leicester have managed such a feat. You won’t hear Munster coach Tony McGahan resting on his laurels though, singling out the Ospreys’ key individuals (Shane Williams, Mike Phillips and James Hook) as men to watch.
On the flip side, Ospreys coach Sean Holley has started some mind games (interesting tactic against arguably one of the most experienced Heineken Cup clubs in Europe, and the masters of knock-out rugby) stating that the Grand Slam will put pressure on the home team. Either way this will be a tight game, and definitely one to look forward to.
The second Irish province in action is Leinster, with a tough trip to high-flying Harlequins. Quins have passed on the money spinning option of transferring the fixture to nearby Twickenham, hoping instead that the atmosphere in a packed Stoop will serve them better in their quest to reach the semis. Quins have also got the vast Heineken Cup experience of a three time winner in their coach Dean Richards. Some may have thought Quins would be unlikely candidates to lift European rugby’s ultimate prize at the start of the season, but with five wins in six pools matches, including a double over heavyweights Stade Francais, Quins have raised more than a few eyebrows. And after their 19-3 victory over Bath at the Rec a couple of weeks ago, which kept them in the running for the Guinness Premiership title, Leinster will surely be wary of the competition’s dark horses.
Leinster, however, are no slouches, and with Ireland’s Grand Slam winning captain, Brian O’Driscoll (In BOD we Trust) back to his mercurial best, and with a host of players still basking in the glory of the slam, they will be no pushovers. Whisper it quietly, but this could be the tie of the round.
French rugby has stuttered of late, with an average performance on the international stage, and their dominance in the Heineken Cup wilting. However, as the likes of Stade Francais, Biarritz, Castres have fallen by the wayside, Toulouse have persevered and carry France’s only flag in the quarter finals…but it will tough to maintain their presence in the draw against a rampant Cardiff Blues side.
The Blues were schooled by Toulouse in last year’s Heineken Cup, losing 41-17 as the three time European champions cruised towards a fifth final appearance. One year on though, and the tie is a very different affair. The Blues have the advantage of being the top ranked side in the draw after an impressive 100% record in the group stages, plus they are at their “home from home”, the Millennium Stadium. Add the likes of Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Andy Powell and you’ve got the bones of a side with huge amounts of potential.
The final fixture is an all English affair, with perennial Heineken Cup combatants Leicester meeting the growing force in English rugby, Bath. Leicester’s Premiership form has been erratic at best, and has not been helped by upheaval at the club following Heyneke Meyer’s departure back to South Africa. However, when it comes to Heineken Cup knock out rugby, few teams have as impressive a pedigree as Leicester.
Bath on the other hand have been flying high all season in the Premiership, and were impressive throughout a group which included Toulouse. Bath’s running brand of rugby, and high octane approach to the ELVs has set them above their peers in the Premiership, and with players like Butch James, Nick Abendanon and Lee Mears, they have the muscle and flair to outwit any team.
All in all the Easter weekend’s rugby treat is enough to give anyone back their Heineken Cup fix after a barren Lent period without European rugby’s premier competition.
By John White