The Scottish, Welsh and Italians may not agree, but the quarter-finals of the last Heineken Cup in its current format appear to have it all: firsts and farewells, dozens of international stars from both hemispheres, daunting records ripe for the breaking and, if you care to boil down the meeting of Ulster and Saracens to the composers of their respective theme tunes, an unexpected clash of the Village People versus Right Said Fred.
History says three out of every four Heineken quarter-finals are won by the home team – or if your lager glass is half-full, one out of every four is an away win. All Leicester have to do is become the first visitors in four and a half years and 75 matches to beat Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.
It was on 21 November 2009 that a try scored by a teenaged full-back Paul Couet-Lannes and converted by Dimitri Yachvili completed a 16-13 win for Biarritz there; nothing so much as a draw has sullied Clermont’s home record since then. When the likes of Stade Français, Racing Métro and Leinster came close, the penalties of Morgan Parra and drop-kicks of Brock James fended them off, and the half-backs are still there today.
Opposite them will be Owen Williams, the Leicester fly-half keeping England’s Toby Flood out of the team and the weekend’s solitary Welsh player (leaving aside Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock, who has a Welsh dad – the former Wales coach Mike – but plays internationally for Ireland).
Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill knows his oignons when it comes to Clermont, having played in the yellow and blue a few years back. Cockerill let slip last week that he had knocked back an approach to become Clermont’s new coach this summer – the New Zealander Vern Cotter is leaving to take charge of Scotland, and would love a first Heineken title to say goodbye – to stay in the English East Midlands.
“Clermont’s supporters all work in the Michelin tyre factory and if you’ve ever been there, you are glad to get out of it and see the rugby,” said Cockerill. “If both sides play as well as they can it should be a great spectacle. I’ll back us to try and sneak it but I’m very aware of how good they are.”
Conversely, no French club has beaten Munster at Limerick’s Thomond Park in 22 attempts but Toulouse will have their first crack at doing so today. The four-time European champions won all three away matches in the pool – most crucially, 17-16 over Saracens at Wembley – and in the choice of half-backs that often seems a lottery, they have plumped for Lionel Beauxis and Jano Vermaak, with France’s Jean-Marc Doussain on the bench.
Ireland’s rugby cup is overflowing already, after winning the Six Nations Championship last month. The way they closed out the decisive win in France may be a mental boost, both for the likes of Munster’s Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony against Toulouse, and for Leinster who go to Toulon tomorrow.
Here the obvious headliners are Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O’Driscoll, one of whom will be playing their last European match before retirement. O’Driscoll’s three Heineken titles with Leinster made Wilko’s solitary quarter-final in his Newcastle days look puny, until the celebrated Englishman won the cup with Toulon last May, coincidentally against Clermont in O’Driscoll’s native Dublin.
Truly, the continent is a small world. The Leinster head coach, Matt O’Connor, was a beaten assistant with Leicester in Toulon at this stage last season. “Our squad has experience of big games and of grinding out big results when the odds are against them,” O’Connor said. “To quote a military term we are a leaderful group.”
He has given Jimmy Gopperth the selection salute over Ian Madigan at fly-half; everywhere else, the personnel is familiar and formidable. Think Delon Armitage v Rob Kearney, Juan Fernández Lobbe v Jamie Heaslip (the Ireland and Lions No 8 unsuccessfully courted by Toulon earlier this season) and Mathieu Bastareaud v O’Driscoll. The great Springbok wing Bryan Habana can only make Toulon’s bench, for goodness’ sake. Stellar barely sums it up.
If Leinster are a decent bet for the away upset (and only if you ignore the invigorating properties of Toulon’s cacophonous Stade Mayol) who to pick out of Ulster and Saracens at the revamped Ravenhill? “Stand Up for the Ulstermen”, to the tune of “Go West”, will surely drown out “Stand Up for the Saracens” in a capacity crowd of 18,000, up from the old 11,700.
The belligerent packs make a black-and-white case for a battle of bludgeon against bludgeon. Ulster’s openside Chris Henry was a Six Nations stand-out; Saracens’ England No 8 Billy Vunipola reappears six weeks after injuring an ankle against Ireland, and reprises his early-season role on the blindside flank. Ruan Pienaar will match his many wiles at scrum-half with Saracens’ cocksure fly-half, Owen Farrell. Maybe, just maybe, the Premiership leaders and top try scorers – 53 from 18 games to Ulster’s 35 from 18 in the Pro 12 – have an edge.
And then there’s Mark McCall, Saracens’ head honcho but an Ulsterman. He was club captain in the province’s European Cup win of 1998-99 but missed every match with a neck injury. He resigned as Ulster’s head coach after three years in November 2007. “This is their first home quarter-final and I gather they could have sold out many times over,” said McCall. A year ago his Saracens beat Ulster 27-16 in the quarters, but that was at Twickenham. They’ll need Vunipola’s brother Mako to stand up in the scrum, in the metaphorical sense, to bring off a repeat.
Heineken Cup: Quarter-final line-up
Munster v Toulouse (1.30pm)
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester (4pm)
Ulster v Saracens (6.30pm)
All Sky Sports 2
Toulon v Leinster (4.30pm)
Sky Sports 3