Brunel scents revenge as Perpignan set sights on glory
Northampton v Perpignan
Milton Keynes is not quite Barcelona, in any shape or form, so the Heineken Cup semi-final challenge facing Northampton tomorrow could be greater.
That's the good news. The bad news is that even without their brilliant Test centre, the injured Maxime Mermoz, and even though their domestic form has been unusually scratchy, the visiting Catalans have convinced themselves that this is their year in Europe – not least because their Italy-bound coach Jacques Brunel has this one shot at glory.
"The English made me suffer during my time with the French national side," remarked Brunel this week, referring to his stints with Les Bleus at the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. "I cannot forget it." In other words, he is out for revenge – and a whiff of vengeance in the air always makes life interesting.
Northampton are without England's find of the season, Tom Wood – his place in the back row is taken by Calum Clark, who, to say the very least, doesn't mind getting stuck in – while Perpignan have the former red rose international Perry Freshwater in their front row, alongside two players, the hooker Guilhem Guirado and the tight-head prop Nicolas Mas, who are pretty much cutting-edge. "These matches have a particular perfume surrounding them," said Brunel, colourfully. Given the nature of the two packs, it smells like sulphur.
Leinster v Toulouse
The best back division in the British Isles against the best back division in France? It should be sublime. Which probably means that when the 2009 champions meet the 2010 champions at the new Lansdowne Road this afternoon, the two packs will slug each other to a standstill and refuse to allow the ball beyond their respective scrum-halves.
When these sides met in last season's semi-final, Toulouse played like gods for seven minutes either side of the hour mark, scored two wonderful tries and walked away with a 10-point victory. They have the personnel to do something similar today: Heymans, Clerc, Medard, Fritz and Poitrenaud are scary at the best of times, and even scarier when they are playing well enough to keep a centre as good as Yannick Jauzion on the bench.
But there is something ever-so-slightly humdrum about their pack these days, especially as Thierry Dusautoir is not quite fit enough to start. Leinster, much improved in the grunt-and-groan department, are equipped to prosper at the tackle area, and if they do so, will there be any stopping the great Brian O'Driscoll?
Munster v Harlequins
Munster do not frighten people up front in quite the way they once did, but opposition victories at Thomond Park are still rarer than radium. Harlequins' chances of making next season's Heineken Cup via the Premiership route are not dead, but they need to beat in-form Saracens next weekend and hope either Bath or London Irish mess up. Winning this Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final would keep qualification in their own hands, but there are easier things in rugby than prevailing in Limerick.
The Londoners are pretty much at full strength while Munster keep Paul O'Connell and Sam Tuitupou, two stand-out players, on the bench.
Newcastle v Bath
Victory for the Tynesiders today will almost certainly keep them in the Premiership, for Leeds would need a bonus-point victory at Northampton in seven days to overhaul them – something that falls squarely into the "fat chance" category. However, Bath are still chasing a play-off place, albeit in an equally far-fetched fashion, and have yet to secure Heineken Cup qualification for next season. As a result, they are unchanged from the exhilarating victory over Wasps at Twickenham a week ago.
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