This weekend is one of the biggest in European rugby, with the quarter-finals of the premier club competition, the Heineken Cup, taking place. There are two ties on each day and all of them are mouthwatering prospects. There are three French sides, three English and two Irish in the mix, making for a rich weekend of continental rugby.
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ASM Clermont Auvergne v Montpellier
The weekend kicks off with two of the French sides meeting one another. On paper this looks like a home banker for Clermont Auvergne. Not only are they unbeaten in their last 58 (yes, you read that right, 58) home games, but they were unbeaten throughout the pool stage of this tournament and boast in their back line the prodigiously talented Wesley Fofana. There could be an upset on the cards here, though. Montpellier beat Clermont the last time the two sides met, boast the criminally-underrated (at least by French international coaches) Francois Trinh-Duc in the pivotal fly-half role and, in Johnnie Beattie and Fulgence Ouedrago, have two of the best loose forwards in the tournament so far. The markets always tend to favour the home side in these knockout stages (doubly so when the home side hasn’t lost for so long) but my pick here is a Montpellier win, offered at 9/2 at most online sportsbooks.
Saracens v Ulster
The other Saturday game sees Saracens take on the men of Ulster. These sides have met four times before in the tournament and Saracens have one three of those games, outscoring the Irishmen by 12 tries to 4. Ulster beat Pro12 table-toppers Leinster at the weekend and so will not be at all bothered by going up against the Premiership leaders, even allowing for that history. This promises to be a close game with showdowns all over the pitch. England’s bright young hope at prop Mako Vunipola, goes up against veteran All Black John Afoa, whilst behind the scrum the battle of the fly-halves between Saracen’s Owen Farrell and Ulster’s Paddy Jackson could either be epic or a comedy of errors judging from the way the two played in the Six Nations. On their day, though, Saracens have just too much power and nous for the Ulster side and I’ll be backing them at 6/11 with Bwin.
Harlequins v Munster
The second Anglo-Irish meeting of the weekend kicks off Sunday. Again, this looks to be a mismatch on paper. Quins have won only one of the six meetings between the teams in this tournament and have an overall losing record in the Heineken Cup, too. Both teams are on a downward spiral, with Harlequins having lost their last three games and Munster somehow shipping over 50 points against Glasgow last weekend. With both teams in such poor form it is hard to pick a winner from this game, but two-time winners Munster do hold the competition record for away wins and have a wealth of experience on their side, with Ronan O’Gara slated to play his 109th Heineken Cup match. On that basis I’m going to add a Munster win to my free picks at 11/4 with Sportingbet.
Toulon v LeicesterThe schedulers have saved the best for last, with pre-season favourites Toulon hosting perennial English hopefuls Leicester. The visitors warmed up for this game with a surprise thrashing of Northampton and look to be running into form at just the right time. Toulon had their own big win, though (over Stade Francais) and their huge budget means that they have strength in depth all over the field. For example, at loose head prop alone they select between Wales’ starter and occasional captain Gethin Jenkins and the man many still believe to be the best Englishman in that position, Andrew Sheridan. Leicester will fight like the tigers they name themselves after, but on home territory it is an unwise man who goes against Toulon, even at best betting odds as short as 2/7 (888.com)