And then there were four. After seven months of bruising encounters between Europe’s club rugby elite, only the strongest quartet are still standing – and the Heineken Cup is almost in touching distance. All Welsh, Italian and Scottish sides have fallen by the wayside, dwarfed by their French, Irish and English counterparts in the pool stages, leaving Saracens, Toulon, Clermont and Munster in the running for the title.
The quarter finals, two of them kick-filled tryless affairs, saw the departure of two of England’s three offerings, Harlequins and Leicester, as well as France’s Montpellier and 2012 runners-up Ulster. Just like last year, we could see two sides from the same country battle it out in the final should French powerhouses Toulon and Clermont both make it through this weekend’s semifinals to the showdown at Twickenham. Don’t forget, of course, about those Lions places Warren Gatland will announce next week – they certainly won’t be far from the players’ minds.
Munster v Clermont Auvergne
Saturday: Montpellier, 1600GMT
Clermont roll into this clash the firm favourites as Munster look to defy the critics once more and clinch a surprise victory in France – and sparks have already gone flying between the two clubs this week. Clermont coach Vern Cotter expressed his disbelief that Munster captain Paul O’Connell was even playing, after escaping a citation his thumping kick to the head on Leinster’s David Kearney in the last round. Also watch out for bad blood between O’Connell and Clermont’s Jamie Cudmore, who was sent off back in 2009 for punching the Munster skipper.
Ireland’s sole representatives certainly haven’t cruised their way to this point in the tournament, finishing second in their pool and grinding out a close tryless win against Harelquins in their quarterfinal. Unlike their fellow semifinalists, they find themselves languishing half way down their own domestic league, the Pro 12, after losing almost half their fixtures this season.
But don’t write them off just yet – this is a side with a formidable Heineken Cup history and a cluster of international stars to its name – a win would see Munster compete in their fifth Heineken cup final in history. Its starting line up boasts some of Ireland’s most dynamic talents, including winger Simon Zebo, flanker Peter O’Mahony and veteran Ronan O’Gara, fourth in the world for number of test points scored.
Few would envy them the task that lies ahead thoug as Clermont have stormed to this semifinal in fine form. They went undefeated with 28 tries chalked up in the pool stages, before crashing over five tries against a helpless Montpellier side in the quarterfinals. Currently top of the fearsome Top 14 French league, they’re firmly in the running for double silverware this season.
Clermont fans will mourn the loss of club captain Aulien Rougerie, who has amassed no fewer than 17 tries thus far in the competition. The French centre has been ruled out with a thigh injury, making way for Regan King. It’s not all bad news though – Australian flyhalf Brock James is fit for duty and will be in good company alongside internatioanls Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana and Lee Byrne in the back row.
Expect Munster to put up a brave performance – with Paul O’Connell leaving from the front as usual – but the odds are on Clermont to battle their way to the final.
Saracens v Toulon
Sun: Twickenham 1400GMT
Twickenham welcomes some of England’s most admired rugby names – past and present – as Toulon take on Saracens in the weekend’s second semifinal. This looks to be a mouth wateringly close fixtures, with the two sides ranked first and second in their domestic leagues and both top of their groups in the pool stages.
Look out for some fascinating one on one duels in this match. Toulon talisman and former England international Johnny Wilkinson faces a young admirer and inheritor of the number 10 shirt as his opposite number, Owen Farrell had barely reached double figures when Wilkinson drop kicked England to World Cup glory, but the Saracen’s fly half has expressed his admiration for the Toulon captain and his excitement at facing him on the pitch. Elsewhere, current England fullback Andy Goode will take on former England turned France exile Delon Armitage, while former international prop Andrew Sheridan squares up against current England man Mako Vunipola.
Saracens put in a solid performance against Ulster, with Owen Farrell clinching all but one of his kicks and Will Frasher and Chris Ashton crossed the whitewash to score. England’s only representatives in the semifinals boast a fearsome backs line – only Joel Tomkins lacks full international caps. As for the forwards, the last year has seen For many of the Sarries players, this marks their last chance to tempt Lions coach Warren Gatland into handing them a place on the upcoming Australia tour – so expect fireworks.
As for Toulon, they continued their fine form with a win over English hopefuls Leicester Tigers 21-15, in another try-free quarter final. It was the battle of old rivals Toby Flood and Johnny Wilkinson, once rivals for the white shirt and now rivals on the pitch, with Wilkinson bagging all of his side’s points. Although pundits have largely written the Toulon man off for a Lions place, he’s been handed captain duties in Toulon off the bag of a series of impressive performances in his side’s Top 14 Campaign.
Both the starting line up and the bench are stuffed with international rugby stars past and present to put a spanner in Saracens’ trophy winning ambitions. Expect flare from Maxime Mermox, Frederic Michalak and Mathieu Bastareaud, despite France’s dismal Six Nations campaign, and keep an eye on Australia’s Matt Giteau, Wales’ Gethin Jenkins and Georgia’s Kubriashvili.
This one’s too tough to call, but it’s possible that the dual between Farrell and Wilkinson could define the outcome of this match, with the man that holds his nerve sealing his team’s place in the final.