Ian Stafford: And Then There Were Eight

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Ian Stafford: And Then There Were Eight

So now we know the line up for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and, indeed, the semi-final draw and, even though some giants of European rugby – notably Toulouse and Leinster – have failed to make the cut, it remains a mouth-watering series of clashes.

 

First up is Harlequins at home against twice former winners Munster and, although Quins finished as top seeds and will be playing at the Stoop, and although Munster scraped into the knockout stages as the second best group runner up, you should never write the Irish province of. Certainly former Irish full back Comor O’Shea, now in charge of Quins, will not. He understands that it is almost a clean slate when we get to the quarter final stages and that, largely, what went on in the pool stages is irrelevant. That said I fancy Quins to reach the semi-finals for the first time in their history.

 

Next is Clermont v Montpellier, an all-French affair which should go Clermont’s way, especially as they, too, are at home, but Toulon, who lost at Montpellier on Saturday, will be quick to point out that their near neighbours from the cote d’azur are a tough, tough outfit and will be desperate, like Harlequins, to make an initial footprint in a tournament in which they have hitherto made little impact. I have Clermont down as the winners.

 

Third up is Toulon v Leicester after the Tigers’ heroics in the snow yesterday at Welford Road which was enough – just – to see off the mighty Toulouse. Leicester will fall into the same camp as Munster. Toulon will be favourites, they will be playing at home and they currently lead the French Top 14 but, like Munster, Leicester are a team no side wants to face, away or at home. The Tigers are only too aware that it has been 11 years since they lasted lifted the trophy. Toulon never have and, with Jonny Wilkinson pulling the strings, I have them down as favourites with one caveat – never completely write off a Tiger.

 

Last, but by no means least, comes Saracens against Ulster, the two teams switching their positions yesterday after Sarries’ crucial bonus point win over Edinburgh. Ulster at Ravenhill is one of the toughest fixtures any team in Europe can have. Ulster at home is not exactly easy either, at least not this season that sees them lead the RaboDirect Pro12 league but Saracens, with their key England contingent, should have too much for the Northern Irishmen.

 

If all this proves correct then the semis will read Clermont v Harlequins at a French venue, and Saracens v Toulon at an English venue. The final? Clermont v Saracens. The winner? Clermont. It will all be very close, of course, and there will be plenty of drama and talking-points along the way, but it will also be a great deal of fun to watch it all unfold.

By Ian Stafford