The Heineken Cup cranks back into action this weekend to hail the start of that part of the season which has, in recent years, produced the best and most exciting rugby to be found in Europe at club or international level. Many of the games which have stuck in the mind of late have come at around this time as sides look to time their run to glory.The Heineken Cup has a very different look and feel to it this year. Many of the big guns have been sabotaged by the bewildering seeding system which happily has been consigned to the garbage for next year. It means that the 1st and 2nd seeds are the sides lying 8th and 6th respectively in the Guinness Premiership. Leicester and Leinster, Wasps and Clermont Auvergne have all fallen by the wayside, being as they were split between 2 groups which were won by Toulouse and Munster respectively. Indeed it is arguable that at least four of the teams playing this weekend are palpably not in Europe’s best 8. This could be lamented but if anything it promises to make the latter stages even more unpredictable and exciting.
Pre-Christmas, all the English teams left in the competition looked excellent and played some fantastic rugby in the pool stages. All have struggled since then and despite having home ties, will have to work very hard to ensure an English presence in the last four. The two Welsh teams, especially the Ospreys, will be buoyant after Wales’s Grand Slam, Munster have been quietly improving during the season and the French sides will benefit from having had more match action after the delayed start to the Top 14. The line-up may look unusual but there is a feast of rugby ahead of us.
London Irish v Perpignan (Saturday 1500hrs)
The first semi final is a hard one to pick. London Irish are capable of playing superb rugby but lack consistency. They qualified for the quarters as no 1 seeds after winning a group which contained Saturday’s opponents. Overall however, Perpignan probably just shaded their head to head encounters, London Irish taking the group by virtue of their ruthless demolitions of the Dragons and Treviso. The positive for Irish is that both games with Perpignan went with home advantage and this could once again prove crucial. They will need the utmost discipline, something they have struggled with this season, and Percy Montgomery’s immaculate left boot will be on hand to punish any misdemeanours.
The game could be loosely billed as Perpignan’s grunt against Irish’s guile but in truth it is far more than that. Irish will need a platform to play from and must achieve at least parity up front to unleash their backs. Shane Geraghty, Peter Richards and Delon Armitage are all in contention after spells out injured and they could make a huge difference to a squad which lacks the depth of some of their rivals. Perpignan do not possess the big names of some of their French rivals but will lack nothing in aggression as they seek a third Heineken Cup semi final. I take Irish to squeak home by less than a score with home advantage once again proving the difference between these two well-matched teams.
Gloucester v Munster (Saturday 1730hrs)
Kingsholm hosts what must go down as the tie of the round. Gloucester have been the coming team in Europe for some time without ever having quite made the breakthrough in big games. They lit up the early stages of the tournament with some scintillating rugby. Their first half against Ulster will live long in the memory but they still have plenty to prove. There remains the suspicion that they go missing in the big games and it is time for their young exciting lads to step forward on the big occasion.
Their recent form however has been patchy. While they remain near the top of the Premiership their form has tailed off. Yet as pitches start to harden and the likes of Tindall (whom they have missed hugely) return, they could start to rediscover their magic. Saturday is the perfect time.
Munster just keep plodding on. Every season seems to be billed as their last chance to make a big impression but they have reached the quarter finals for an incredible 10th time. Some of their players have been around so long they must be well into their 50s by now. Gloucester will still remember being humiliated at Thomond Park a few years back and will be determined to prove their big game pedigree. But Munster emerged from the toughest group in the competition through sheer bloody-mindedness despite being considerably more limited than Clermont and Wasps. Nobody understands the demands required for European success as much as Munster. Gloucester have it all to do and I expect them to fall just short.
Saracens v Ospreys (Sunday 1230hrs)
Saracens, after a season in which they looked likely to challenge for multiple honours are in danger of disintegrating and this represents their last chance of redemption if their season is not to sink without trace. They were hammered by Ospreys in the EDF and Ryan Jones voiced his suspicion that were they still playing now Saracens still wouldn’t have scored. However, this could play into Saracens hands. The Ospreys will be confident in their ability to overcome Saracens. However Saracens have seen what the Ospreys are capable of while Saracens showed very little of their potential in that game. It is likely that Saracens will face a very similar Ospreys team while Ospreys will be facing a very different Saracens outfit, not in terms of personnel, but in terms of efficiency and approach.
Saracens have showed before that they can turn it round quickly at home against Biarritz where they offered very little in the first half before running away in the second half to a 45-16 victory against one of Europe’s big beasts.
Having said that, Ospreys are confident and are on a roll. They will not want to lose the momentum established by Wales’s grand slam in which so many of them played a big part. It is often the case with Welsh teams that much depends on their self-belief. The international season, allied to their progression to the EDF final at the expense of Sunday’s opponents could render them an irresistible force. They certainly feel that this is their time. The loss of Mike Philips will barely create a ripple as they have Justin Marshall to step in and they should once again overcome Saracens.
Toulouse v Cardiff (Sunday 1500hrs)
Toulouse are rightly favourites for the competition and seem to have risen above the malaise which has enveloped French rugby of late. They possess so much depth and with Wasps, Leicester and Clermont Auvergne having been knocked out, they have a squad without peer in this year’s tournament. They should really fancy their chances. The loss of Michalak has barely been felt because all they really need at 10 is someone to transfer the ball from Kelleher or Elissalde to the likes of Jauzion, Heymans and Clerc. Not a bad position to be in.
Cardiff did well to get out of the dogfight that was Pool 3, taking the scalp of a strangely subdued Stade Francais on the way. But this will surely be a bridge too far for them. They have ended some years of underachievement by getting to this stage and it could be a platform for greater things to come. They have been unfortunate that they have got the toughest trip possible despite winning their group. I suspect that they will give a good account of themselves but Toulouse will prove too strong. It would be a gargantuan effort for Cardiff to prevail.
I don’t know about you but I love the Heineken Cup. So charge up the cold box, surround yourself with nibbly snacks and pizza menus, pack the other half off to the cinema, sit back and enjoy.
by Stuart Peel