Four games, eight heavyweights of European rugby of which six are repeats from last year’s knockouts. In her final outing the Heineken Cup has served up a treat.
Munster come off the back of a defeat to Irish rivals Leinster at Lansdowne Road and an entirely unremarkable 14-3 home win against Treviso. The Dublin loss aside, Ian Keatley’s six goals from six against Leinster were a tremendous boost as his kicking form hadn’t set the world alight this season, while spiritual leader Paul O’Connell is in tremendous form around the paddock. More good news? Captain Peter O’Mahony, poacher-in-chief, has shaken off a hamstring worry and is named to start.
Thom Sweet Home
Munster are 8/15 favourites with a handicap of -4 and the magical powers of Thomond Park on Heineken Cup day are powerful indeed, with ghosts of grudges and victories past drifting through the stands whipping the atmosphere into a frenzy. While Toulouse have won just two of their last seven games, betting against any team with Medard, Huget and Fickou should be done with extreme caution. Even without the formidable frames of Census Johnston and Thierry Dusautoir in the mix, it carries the stench of danger.
Leices’ Need More
Clermont are ten point favourites over Leicester and 1/7 to win; that incredible home winning streak is not to be trifled with. The Clermont scrum has been a powerhouse in this season’s Heineken Cup, winning 96% of their own ball and allowing their opponents to take just 74%. That +22% scrum dominance was more than double Leicester’s very healthy +11% and the absence of Lions prop Dan Cole will be a big blow to the Tigers. Leicester might fancy their chances at the lineout, however, where they enjoyed a +12% advantage in the pool stages and averaged an enormous 3.5 steals per game. But there are no bonus points in knockout rugby, there is no Sitiveni Sivivatu with his sidestepping offloadery for Clermont and Leicester’s Samoan wrecking ball, Manu Tuilagi, starts for the Tigers. Since their last Heineken cup battles Clermont have won just three of seven (all at home, naturally) with an overall points difference of just +3 per match while Leicester have won six from six. Leicester at +10 is worth a close look.
Ruan-ing Saracens Day
Ulster face Saracens as 4/7 favourites with a three point spread. The Ulstermen’s defence has been good in the Heineken Cup and their recent league form has been no different. Six pool games saw them average just 10 points conceded per match and in their last six Pro 12 games they’ve averaged 12, still very good indeed. That defensive standard will need to be maintained against a Saracens outfit which has won their last five Premiership games and, while employing a massive amount of squad rotation, has scored 50 more points than anyone in the Premiership this season. Oh, and they’ve also notched up 36 points per game in the Heineken Cup, Zebre notwithstanding. If Ulster can maintain their good discipline (they have enjoyed a +3.3 penalty advantage per Heineken Cup game) and keep up the damage they’ve done to opposing scrums (an extremely low 71% opponent scrum success rate) then the Ruan Pienaar game controlling machine can guide them to victory.
Wilko and out?
Champions Toulon have a four point handicap against Leinster who have won six from six in the Pro 12 (including two vs Zebre). It’s a stunning contest to round off the weekend; the defending Heineken Cup champions led by Jonny Wilkinson in his final season facing a Leinster side dominated by Ireland’s Six Nations winners and a certain retiring gentlemen in the thirteen shirt. It’s fair to say that both sides have blown hot and cold in the competition but Irish rugby is on a high and, to the chagrin of some, a colossal horde of Leinster players formed the backbone of that Six Nations winning team and bench.
This season Leinster’s Heineken Cup games have typically involved an extra 7% of active play than Toulon’s, that means more carries, more line breaks and more rucking per match. That’s energy sapping stuff, but Leinster’s players are used to it. They’ll need to improve their scrummaging and hooking (Leinster’s pool scrum success was just 82% compared to Toulon’s 91%) with Richardt Strauss possibly starting ahead of Sean Cronin for that very reason.The four point spread is attractive but if Leinster can move Toulon’s beasts around the park and tackle giant centre Mathieu Bastareaud around his ankles rather than chest high, Leinster are a decent shout to silence the Pilou-Pilou completely at 13/8.
Credit: all playing stats courtesy of Opta