This Sunday, Harlequins look to establish themselves as a European heavyweight when they take on Munster, a side whose European pedigree is well-known, in the Heineken Cup Quarter Finals. Neither side comes to the Twickenham Stoop in a great vein of form, Harlequins having lost three of their last five games, with those two wins both coming in the LV Cup, and Munster having lost their last three away games, including blowout losses to both Glasgow Warriors and Benetton Treviso. If Harlequins can triumph on Sunday, it will be the first time they have been beyond the Quarter Final stage of Europe’s premiere club rugby competition.
If Harlequins can at gain parity at the set-piece and breakdown, and establish their expansive playing style, there are few teams who can live with them. That being said, gaining parity with the Munster pack is no easy task, and players such as James Johnston, George Robson and Chris Robshaw will need to be at their best.
If the Quins forwards are not on the back foot throughout the game, Danny Care will be able to provide good service to Nick Evans, and the former All-Black can spark a back line which should have an advantage over Munster’s. Evans will look to get over a disappointing few weeks for Harlequins, and they will need his usually unerring accuracy with the boot, not just to score points, but also to ensure that the home side are playing the game in the right areas of the pitch.
Player to watch – Mike Brown
There are few better counter-attackers in the Northern Hemisphere than Brown, and given the likelihood that Munster will bombard Harlequins with high balls, his abilities could be instrumental in deciding the game’s victor. Equally, Brown’s elusive running style can often see him isolated, and Harlequins’ back row will need to ensure they support him, otherwise he could provide Munster with a means to improving their field position, or worse, easy shots at goal.
The visitors do come into the game with an enviable accolade – no other side has won more away Quarter Finals in the history of the competition than the Irish province. That success was largely built upon the physicality of their forwards and an almost incomparable set-piece, two areas of their game which they will need to be at their best if they are to come away from the Twickenham Stoop with the win.
The second-row pairing of Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan should prove vital to these goals, and their Heineken Cup experience – 153 appearances between them – will be invaluable to Munster’s hopes. Speaking of Heineken Cup experience, Ronan O’Gara, the competition’s record points scorer, will also look to punish Harlequins if his side can gain an advantage in the forwards, whether it be keeping the scoreboard ticking over with his boot, or spreading the ball out wide to the likes of Doug Howlett and Casey Laulala.
Player to watch – BJ Botha
Botha won’t set the game ablaze with barnstorming runs, but he is one of the best tighthead props playing in the Northern Hemisphere, and his battle with Joe Marler in the scrum could prove pivotal to the game. Marler came in for criticism for his performances during the Six Nations, and those critics have not let up, claiming he is ‘undersized’ to be an elite-level prop, and could be exposed by Botha on Sunday. If Botha can help Munster gain the upper hand at the scrum, it could lay the foundations for a performance reminiscent of the Munster of old.
Ultimately, as it is so often, the team which establishes dominance at the set piece will most likely go on to win the game. With both teams on a relatively poor run of form, the experience of the likes of O’Connell and O’Callaghan could be invaluable in Munster’s ability to rise to the occasion, as they have so often done in the past. Harlequins’ home advantage should not be forgotten however, and their youthful side, whilst respectful of Munster’s pedigree, will not fear them.
Expect the game to go down to the wire. Munster by three.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)