Europe’s top rugby competition further intensifies this weekend when Ulster host Edinburgh in Dublin and Clermont Auvergne clash with Leinster in Bordeaux, with a spot in next month’s Heineken Cup final up for grabs.
Historically, England have performed the best of the countries represented, their clubs winning six of the 16 tournaments held, but not a single English club has made it to the final four this time around, after Saracens were knocked out in the quarter-finals.
It leaves a couple of Ireland’s usual suspects, an emerging French powerhouse and, lo and behold, a plucky Scottish side venturing further into this tournament than any before it. The last stage of the Heineken Cup produced its share of surprises, so who would bet against this weekend’s matches delivering a few more?
✪ Overall: They’re still hustling for a playoff spot in the Pro12 league – which includes the top Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian sides – but scored possibly their most memorable result of the year in the quarter-finals when they put one over on Munster in Limerick. The Munster men had breezed through the group stage unbeaten, whereas Ulster had been forced to scrap, only edging out Leicester on bonus points. But form did nothing to prevent a dramatic upset, leaving Ulster in the box seat to go through to the final.
✪ Key players: In terms of personnel, Ulster have a core of Irish stayers, complimented by a handful of Saffa ring-ins. The signing of Ruan Pienaar has already paid dividends, the 27-year-old scrumhalf pulling the strings masterfully and scoring crucial points with the boot against Munster. At fullback, the evergreen Stefan Terblanche has also been a consistent contributor, using his vision and creativity to help set up many of the team’s best drives. Among the locals, hooker Rory Best and wing Andrew Trimble have been stars.
✪ Prediction: Should be too strong for Edinburgh at home but will start as underdogs in the final.
✪ Overall: It’s been a remarkable campaign for the Scots, made all the more improbable by the fact their performances in the league have been disastrous – they’re right down the bottom end of the Pro12, but have somehow managed to turn it on for the European competition. They topped their pool and then, in the quarter-finals, scored one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, knocking over four-time champions Toulouse at Murrayfield. Previously, no Scottish team had made it to the last four of the Heineken Cup and the Gunners will be hoping their unlikely run continues for another couple of matches.
✪ Key players: Flyhalf Greig Laidlaw will be closely marked by Ulster after proving the difference against Toulouse. His partnership with scrumhalf Mike Blair will determine whether Edinburgh simply weather the storm or manage to threaten enough while in possession to keep Ulster on their toes. Up front, hooker Ross Ford is Scotland’s national captain and won’t take a backward step.
✪ Prediction: It’s been emotional, but Edinburgh will be outgunned in Dublin.
✪ Overall: In the past couple of seasons, Clermont and Toulouse have emerged as the dominant sides in French rugby, sharing the last two titles and pulling away from the chasing pack in this year’s Top 14 race. Still, their fans were made to sweat during the group stage, their team, like Edinburgh, only qualifying for the knock-out stage on bonus points. But they found an extra gear when they went to Vicarage Road and beat Saracens, the only English side who looked at all capable of firing a shot in Europe.
✪ Key players: They boast a clutch of French stars, most notably Aurelien Rougerie at centre and superstar scrumhalf Morgan Parra (main image). Both players were stand-outs during France’s World Cup campaign and are among the highest-profile players in French rugby. Out wide, former All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu poses a constant attacking threat – his breakaway runs were a feature of his career with the Chiefs and he’s no easier to stop since moving to France.
✪ Prediction: Are they favourites at home? Hard to say – they still lack Leinster’s pedigree in this competition.
✪ Overall: They’re the reigning European champions and have retained plenty of players who also won the Heineken Cup two years earlier so they’re no strangers to this stage of the tournament. They’ve been in imperious form in the Pro12, topping the table, asserting themselves as hot favourites for the title. They qualified comfortably for the knock-out stage and then belted Cardiff in the quarter-finals. So, basically, they’ve been simmering along beautifully and they’re the team no one wants to face.
✪ Key players: They’ve got a stack of Irish hard heads, led by Cian Healy and Mike Ross in the forward pack, complimented by All Blacks legendary lock Brad Thorn and captain Leo Cullen. In the backline, it’s all about Brian O’Driscoll, who has been a fixture at centre for club and Ireland over the course of his glittering career. O’Driscoll needs to cross once more to become equal top try-scorer in this tournament.
✪ Prediction: They have the heavy artillery to go all the way but getting past Clermont won’t be easy.