A few short weeks ago, when Saracens secured home advantage in the last eight of the Heineken Cup, their England wing Chris Ashton was still being talked of as a hot contender for this summer’s Lions series in Australia.
Since when, things have changed dramatically – and very much for the worse. If there are still people out there who see Ashton as a prime tour candidate, they are not thought to include anyone who matters.
Least of all the Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, whose attention at Twickenham this evening will be focused on a member of the visiting Ulster party – namely, Tommy Bowe. Back in the mix after long-term injury, Bowe could change Gatland’s thinking if he makes a significant impact off the bench. One of the star turns of the last Lions event, in South Africa four years ago, he has just enough time – and, equally importantly, enough high-profile matches – to stake a claim after a four-month struggle with knee problems.
Similarly, Gatland will be interested in the performance of a second Irish wing, the off-the-wall trickster Simon Zebo, who has also put recent orthopaedic woes behind him. Zebo plays for Munster at Harlequins tomorrow, as does the 2009 Lions captain Paul O’Connell – another member of the walking wounded brigade who has suddenly started running around like Usain Bolt in an effort to catch an important eye or two.
All told, there are probably half a dozen players who see this weekend’s European extravaganza as a last audition for a Lions role, and the temperature is likely to rise as a result. Not that a Heineken Cup quarter-final round has ever struggled to generate heat. The three games involving Premiership clubs – Leicester’s visit to the squillionaires’ lair of Toulon tomorrow completes the weekend’s business – are fiendishly difficult to call. For England’s finest, it could be everything or nothing.
The erosion of Premiership fortunes in Europe over recent seasons is at the heart of the latest political squabble over the future of the world’s best club tournament, but Saracens, at least, are extremely confident of taking a significant step towards a first Heineken title. Around 40,000 spectators are expected at Twickenham tonight, four times the number who usually watch a Sarries “home” game. It will, according to Owen Farrell, help the Londoners maximise their performance.
“I’m sure the place will be rocking,” said the England outside-half yesterday. “As much as we pride ourselves on turning up week in and week out, we like playing in big stadiums and we like these occasions, as we’ve proved in the past. I’ve yet to see a serious knock-out game when the team has not been up for it.”
Ulster, beaten finalists last year, have been knocked around by injury since mid-December, but all their major influences – the full-back Jared Payne, the scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, the front-rowers Rory Best and John Afoa, the Springbok lock Johann Muller – will be present and correct today. With Bowe lined up for impact duty, there is no reason to think they will be a pushover, even for opponents as strong minded and tactically cute as Saracens.
Pretty much the same can be said for Munster, who are most unlikely to hand out free gifts in the way they did during last week’s embarrassing Pro 12 defeat in Glasgow. They can call on Casey Laulala, Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony, all driven along by the wonderfully authoritative O’Connell. If the two-time champions fail to survive their visit to the Stoop, probably the loudest ground in England these days, it will not be for the want of a hard edge.
Heineken last eight
Clermont Auvergne v Montpellier (3.40pm)
Saracens v Ulster (6.30pm)
[both Sky Sports 1]
Harlequins v Munster (2pm)
Toulon v Leicester (4.30pm)
[both Sky Sports 2]