Richard Cockerill: Leicester can bring down Clermont’s fortress

 

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.”

Either Jonny Wilkinson (left) or Brian O’Driscoll will play their last European match when they meet Either Jonny Wilkinson (left) or Brian O’Driscoll will play their last European match when they meet (Getty Images)
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

Saturday

Munster v Toulouse (1.30pm)

Clermont Auvergne v Leicester (4pm)

Ulster v Saracens (6.30pm)

All Sky Sports 2

Sunday

Toulon v Leinster (4.30pm)

Sky Sports 3

News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea