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Heineken Cup – Scramble For The Quarter Finals

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So it’s here, the final weekend of the 2014 Heineken Cup pools stages, Brian O’Driscoll’s final European bow in the RDS, and who knows what other finals this could wind up being as the European rugby situation still sits in utter turmoil. But enough of that, for now there’s a serious amount of permutations and predictions to get through.

Leinster are once again in a more perilous position in round six than they have been previously. It’s still highly unlikely they’ll fail to qualify as even a losing bonus point would see them through, but with their game coming tomorrow, their fate is out of their hands as the rest of the weekend’s results will decide their final spot on the table. Ospreys are dead and buried in the competition yet are fielding a far stronger team than expected, with Hibbard, Tipuric and Adam Jones in particular making for a menacing pack. Leinster will of course remain without Sean O’Brien, though they can thankfully rely on his services for the next two years. That being said Les Bleus still field Healy, Moore and Heaslip, with the incredible recovery of Strauss seeing him included on the bench. O’Brien aside it’s one of the strongest 23s Leinster can put out at present and surely the win is secured, it will mostly come down to that ever previous try count however and here Leinster may come up short.
Leinster win (No bonus)

Ulster are leading the charge of the Irish teams with their clash at Welford Road potentially seeing them finish top seed of the final 8, as well as the game itself likely to be one of the best of the weekend. Ulster’s progression since 2008 has been nothing short of remarkable, their qualification in 2011 exorcising many demons and since then they have been steadily increasing their progress. They are ensuring their status as the next invincible province, and you feel that top seed, potential hike quarter and a solid performance tomorrow will solidify that. Leicester on the other hand are one of only two English sides in any real contention and though they are far from vintage, they’ll put up one hell of a fight. Ulster would do well for the confidence if you else were they to secure a bonus point this weekend, but that, like Leinster, will likely be out of their reach.
Ulster win (No bonus)

Connacht should be more primed for this game than any in the past. Three wins in the competition this season, one over four time champions Toulouse, it has been a fantastic return. They will rue the fact that they couldn’t fully catch up with Saracens in their opener, which would have led to this weekend being a winner takes all encounter, but they still stand a decent chance of Amlin qualification, and the slightest of chances of Heineken qualification. They’re the only team in the pool that managed to topple the French, and the response from a wounded Toulouse aside there’s been no drubbings so to speak this season. Pat Lam doesn’t want any of these hyperbolic phrases and good sentiments however, he wants results. Saracens have it all to play for tomorrow, and the home advantage, but this above all else could be the most likely upset of the weekend. Still, the stats don’t lie.
Saracens win (No bonus)

Lastly on Sunday, Munster welcome Edinburgh to Thomond Park with their place in the knockouts already secured. A bonus point win and some favourable surrounding results could see them back in Limerick for their quarter final, but Edinburgh too stand the same outside chance as Connacht of qualification for the Amlin or Heineken. They are also the bogey team of the pool, having beaten Munster in the opening game and progressing on to beat Gloucester and Perpignan one a piece. They simply cannot be underestimated and, as with Leinster, Munster have a seemingly unbelievable chance of falling to them on Sunday. All that being said, though some cracks remain, Munster are relatively unrecognisable to the team that lost to this opposition back in October. They could also likely be adding Zebo and Murray in the same starting team for the the first time in months, as well as the towering presence of O’Connell of course. Speaking to Sky Sports this week, Ronan O’Gara remarked that in his estimation the young blood of Munster today now finally fully understand the legacy, that this is a team that arrives to win, nothing less. This is exactly what the Thomond faithful will want to see on Sunday, more so than the win even, they will want to see hat Munster once again look like a team that can win this competition.
Munster win (Bonus)

Predictions for the final 8,based on some left field results Paddy Power wouldn’t be happy to see:

Ulster VS Northampton
Toulouse VS Leicester
Munster VS Clermont
Leinster VS Toulon

The above hinges on many unlikely incidents, namely Toulon slipping to Glasgow, Saracens losing to Connacht, and Clermont losing to Racing. All that said, Toulon could easily slip up in Glasgow though Racing beating Clermont in fortress Michelin is unlikely. We all want to dream Connacht will come through however.

Image courtesy of ercrugby.com

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