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Heineken Cup – The French Connection Continues

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What is it with Irish teams versus the French? The English have Le Crunch, but with fixtures like Leinster VS Clermont in 2010 at the Aviva, again two years later in Bordeaux, Ulster VS Montpellier and Munster VS Perpignan this year, you’d have to say the Celtic and Gallic head to head has just created a huge buzz in recent years. Good news then that two of the three Irish provinces are of course taking on French opposition this weekend. Pure sporting nectar.

OK, so Leinster are facing probably the least French team they have so far, with only 3 of their starting 15 natives, but with the Toulon faithful behind them Leinster won’t know any difference. Until last season French opposition, home or away, seemed like even opponents and nothing more to Leinster but after those dual defeats to Clermont in 2012 there’s a bit of a sting remaining. There’s also no Joe Schmidt, Isa Nacewa or Jonathan Sexton, and it’s at this stage of the season that all three used to show how valuable they are more so than any other time.

Toulon welcome Jonny Wilkinson back to the fold but they have been unable to include Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams due to injury, one of the few shining lights for Leinster. Meanwhile the Blues have gone for Jimmy Gopperth at out half despite minimal game time since February, but reinstate Cian Healy above all else which is likely to be crucial against the Toulon power. He was dearly missed in the narrow win last week, and particularly in the scrum so Matt O’Connor will be hopeful he can remain calm in that area this weekend.

Undoubtedly this is the biggest test this “New Leinster” has faced thus far, and it is hard to carry the same optimism previously found in the Heineken Cup knock outs. True enough, they’re not a team that can ever be written off, but there’s no denying they’ve been a little too hot/cold this season. God help me I want to be wrong, if only for the potentially exhilarating semi final fixture it would create, but I have to say it.
Toulon win

Munster, surprisingly really, welcome Toulouse to Thomond Park for the first time on Saturday, and they’re arguably the strongest favourites of the Irish. This title though is once again based more on Heineken Cup vintage rather than current form. Of course yes they’re having their best season under Rob Penney so far and we can admit it now, Alain Rolland didn’t do them any favours last week. French teams tend to fare poorly at scrum time in the Heineken due to the polar opposite refereeing approach to that area and so expect a lot of long ball and scrum dominance from the Reds after their show last week.

Guy Novès is missing Yannick Nyanga and Luke McAlister from his squad which unarguably hinders his efforts, but while Munster continue to struggle at centre he can call upon Gael Fickou and Florian Fritz to do some damage. Not a well worn centre combination by any stretch, but Casey Laulala and James Downey will have their hands full, as the former Northampton man joins Peter O’Mahony as the two changes from last week.

Home advantage is never more significant than in the Quarter Finals of the Heineken Cup with only one team per year managing a win away from home ordinarily and you would have to think that with a better sheen on their overall performance from the last two weeks, it has to be a Munster win.
Munster win

Finally Ulster once again meet Saracens in the Quarters. Last season Ulster were comprehensively beaten in Twickenham in an extremely off day by comparison to their year round form. But if there’s any team better capable of revenge at the minute, let themselves be known.

Ruan Pienaar returning to the starting XV is crucial for the Ulstermen who also boast Tommy Bowe and that electric back line as well as Stephen Ferris and Robbie Diack waiting on the bench to wreak havoc. Criag Gilroy too is due a big show and what better weekend to do it. Then there is the aforementioned home advantage and the fact that Ulster, aside from that one day last season, have been steadily improving year on year. Not exactly favourites, but more favourite than the visitors for sure.

Sarries of course have an intimidating back line of their own including David Strettle and Chris Ashton, as well as an evolved playmaker in Owen Farrell after an excellent Six Nations. Of all the weekend’s fixtures the most flash and flying rugby of all should come from this corner tomorrow evening, with a close finish all but guaranteed. That said, home advantage once again.
Ulster win

Image courtesy of BBC.Co.uk

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