The biggest club rugby tournament in the Northern Hemisphere returns this weekend and there are four colossal ties to look forward to. The pool stages finished back in January with Leinster, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster and Munster all claiming the top spots in their respective pools with the English pair of Saracens and Leicester Tigers finishing as the highest scoring runners-up.
One of the key features of the pool stages is the battle for a home Quarter-final as teams are fully aware of how much impact a home crowd can have on the outcome of a game. We are not expecting to see four home wins come Sunday evening although there is a good chance that it may happen. All four matches are already sold out so the atmosphere in each stadium is sure to be electric.
Munster v Toulouse (Saturday 5th April, 1:30 GMT)
Munster XV – Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo, Ian Keatley, Conor Murray, James Coughlan, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell, Dave Foley, BJ Botha, Damien Varley, Dave Kilcoyne
Toulouse XV – Maxime Médard, Yoann Huget, Florian Fritz, Gaël Fickou, Hosea Gear, Lionel Beauxis, Jano Vermaak, Louis Picamoles, Joe Tekori, Yacouba Camara, Patricio Albacete, Yoann Maestri, Yohan Montes, Christopher Tolofua, Gurthro Steenkamp.
The crowd at Thormond Park will need to be in full voice on Saturday lunchtime as Munster look to get back on track after a 22-18 defeat to Leinster last weekend in the RaboDirect PRO12. If Munster are trailing at the break then don’t write them off as we have seen plenty of times in the past what they can do when the fans get behind them. The major team news is that Peter O’Mahony has recovered from a hamstring twinge to take charge of the side. James Downey has been recalled to form a centre partnership with Casey Laulala.
Toulouse failed to make it out of the pool stages last season so will be looking to make amends this time around. Out of the eight teams left in the competition, Toulouse are able to boast the fact that they have the most Heineken Cup trophies in their cabinet with four. The French side are without forward pair Census Johnston and Thierry Dusautoir whilst a decision is yet to be made on who will take the final place on the bench with Yannick Nyanga, Luke McAlister, Vincent Clerc and Clement Poitrenaud all in contention.
LR Prediction: Munster 22 – 20 Toulouse
Look out for: Hosea Gear – The winger announced earlier this week that he will be moving to Japanese second division club Honda Heat at the end of the season so a big performance will be expected of the 13 times capped All Black. If Toulouse can get the ball out to Gear then he is sure to cause opposite man Keith Earls a number of problems. We all remember the last time that the pair met (click here to refresh your memory).
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers (Saturday 5th April, 4:00pm GMT)
Clermont Auvergne XV – Jean-Marcellin Buttin, Noa Nakaitaci, Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Naipolioni Nalaga, Brock James, Morgan Parra, Fritz Lee, Damien Chouly, Julien Bonnaire, Nathan Hines, Jamie Cudmore, Davit Zirakashvili, Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo
Leicester Tigers XV – Matthew Tait, Blaine Scully, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Allen, Niki Goneva, Owen Williams, Ben Youngs, Jordan Crane, Julian Salvi, Jamie Gibson, Ed Slater, Louis Deacon, Logovi’i Mulipola, Tom Youngs, Marcos Ayerza
Clermont are currently on a 74 game unbeaten run at home, in a sequence dating back to 2009 and are therefore favourites to progress to the semi-finals. Defeated in last seasons final, the French side will surely be looking to go one step further this time around. A forward pack that will look to get stuck in to their opposition whilst the back-line can go through you like a hot knife through butter, Clermont are strong all over the park. With Sitiveni Sivivatu missing, it will be up to Naipolioni Nalaga to make the yards with the ball in hand.
The Tigers are once again hitting form when it really matters and are sure not to roll over easily on their visit to France. Richard Cockerill’s side were knocked out at this stage last season by Toulon and will be looking to get past the Quarter-finals for the first time since 2009. The game will be a huge test for youngster Owen Williams in the #10 shirt. He’s been brilliant domestically for Leicester this season but must hold his nerve and take control of things at the intimidating Stade Marcel Michelin.
LR Prediction: Clermont Auvergne 24 – 16 Leicester Tigers
Look out for: Logovi’i Mulipola – The Samoan giant in the Leicester Tigers front row has recently caught the eye thanks to a couple of barnstorming runs in the Aviva Premiership. However his scrummaging ability will be what is tested this weekend as he goes up against French international Thomas Domingo.
Ulster v Saracens (Saturday 5th April, 6:30pm GMT)
Ulster XV – Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Tommy Bowe, Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar, Nick Williams, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson, Dan Tuohy, Johann Muller, John Afoa, Rory Best, Tom Court.
Saracens XV – Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt, David Strettle, Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth, Ernst Joubert, Jacques Burger, Billy Vunipola, Mouritz Botha, Steve Borthwick, James Johnston, Schalk Brits, Mako Vunipola.
The only undefeated side in the pool stages, the home side will be hoping to continue this run on Saturday evening. With the redevelopment of Ravenhill completed ahead of schedule, the stadium will be brimming with spectators cheering on the hosts. Ulster will be happy to have South African scrum half Ruan Pienaar back in their starting line-up after injury. Stephen Ferris has also been selected on the bench as he continues his comeback from injury. If he does appear then you can guarantee that the intensity of the match will go up a couple of notches.
Saracens were knocked out in the semi-finals of last year by eventual winners Toulon and are looking to make the final for the first time in their history. Saracens are in fact the only team left in the competition to not have any European honours to their name. The current Aviva Premiership leaders welcome back Billy Vunipola but he will be in the number 6 shirt rather than the number 8 shirt that he wore for England during the 6 Nations. Richard Wigglesworth also gets the nod over Neil de Kock to take on Pienaar.
LR Prediction: Ulster 25 – 27 Saracens
Look out for: Ruan Pienaar – The fans will be hoping that the return of the Springboks scrum half will galvanise an Ulster side looking for revenge. This time last year Pienaar only successfully converted 3 out of 5 penalty kicks in their defeat to Saracens at Twickenham. If he can find his range then there is a high chance that our prediction will be incorrect.
Toulon vs Leinster (Sunday 6th April, 4:30pm GMT)
Toulon XV – Delon Armitage, Drew Mitchell, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, David Smith, Jonny Wilkinson, Sebastian Tillous-Borde, Steffon Armitage, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, Juan Smith, Jocelino Suta, Danie Roussouw, Carl Hayman, Craig Burden, Xavier Choicci
Leinster XV -Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings, Rhys Ruddock, Mike McCarthy, Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy
You can be sure that Toulon President Mourad Boudjellal will be looking for his team to make it back-to-back Heineken Cups this season. The reigning champions are boosted by the return of Jonny Wilkinson from injury, with his kicking sure to be a key if Toulon are to progress. With a squad made up of stars from around the world it will be interesting to see how they cope without the injured pair of Bakkies Botha (broken arm) and Ali Williams (arm). If the going does get tough then they can bring the likes of Bryan Habana and Martin Castrogiovanni off the bench.
Leinster come in to the game off a massive victory over rivals Munster last weekend and will be confident of causing an upset in the south of France. Prop Cian Healy and Centre Brian O’Driscoll have both been declared fit and will be key players for the visitors. Coach Matt O’Connor has opted for the experienced Jimmy Gopperth at fly-half rather than Ian Madigan, despite the young Irish player shining recently against Munster. An incredible 11 of the starting XV were part of the Ireland team that lifted the 6 Nations trophy in Paris less than a month ago.
LR Prediction: Toulon 32 – 27 Leinster
Look out for: Mathieu Bastareaud – If the centre can break through the D’Arcy/O’Driscoll partnership the same way he did for France against Ireland in the 6 Nations a few weeks ago then Toulon are sure to make Leinster pay the price.