And so it would seem that European rugby’s very own version of an Entente Cordiale is almost signed, bringing to an end months (nay years) of political bickering, bargaining and bemoaning. The TV rights have been agreed on, the format has been ratified and the revenue split has been approved. Bar a couple of (what we are told are) minor issues, there will be a new and improved European Cup from next season.
About time too, as this particular dispute has caused more fall-out in the last twelve months than at any other point of the professional era: first the English and French fell out with the ERC, then the English and French fell out with themselves, then the Welsh regions fell out with the WRU and (most worrying of all dear readers) last week one particularly militant twitter user fell out with this very rugby blog over our questioning of David Moffett’s return to the Welsh rugby arena. In the words of Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons, “won’t somebody please think of the children!”
As an advertisement for all that’s good about rugby this episode has been…well…it hasn’t been an advertisement for all that’s good about rugby. There’s been lots of talk in Wales about the lure of Premier League Football and how this is resulting in a drop in participation, especially at youth level. Red Rugby suspects that that particular card has been overplayed somewhat but, regardless of that, with this saga coming to an end European rugby now has a golden opportunity to put itself in the shop window as we build towards the Rugby World Cup in 2015. And what better way to start anew than with the Heineken Cup quarter finals this weekend – each of which looks like a right humdinger!
For all its flaws and quirks the Heineken Cup has provided some brilliant moments and some brilliant matches over the last twenty years. Most of these have taken place in the competition’s knock-out stages: Stade Francais vs Leicester in 2001; Leicester vs Llanelli in 2002; Wasps vs Toulouse in 2004; Leinster vs Northampton in 2011 etc. etc. etc. The four matches this weekend have the potential to join that illustrious lists of classics. While the Cardiff final in May will be the last ever Heineken Cup game (the new European Cup will have a different title sponsor), what finer send-off can be given to the competition than arguably the best quarter final lineup ever witnessed.
So with that hyperbolic build-up safely in the bag, let’s have a look at the games and predict the winners:
Saturday 5 April, 1.30pm – Munster v Toulouse
Two of the most successful teams in Heineken Cup history open up the quarter-final weekend with Munster coming off the back of a disappointing loss to Leinster in the Pro12 last week (in front of a packed Aviva Stadium crowd). Toulouse have had a rather mixed run in this year’s competition including a loss to Connacht and a nervy win away to Italian minnows Zebre. In the end, it was two impressive victories over Saracens that saw them through. Thomond Park will be a different task altogether though. As such, expect a Munster win by ten points.
Saturday 5th April, 4pm – Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers
At the start of the season, Red Rugby predicted that Clermont would be this year’s champions…and we’re not changing our mind. Vern Cotter’s men have been brilliant over the last few seasons but have always fallen at the final hurdles. With this being the Kiwi coach’s last season with the club (before taking over as Scotland’s head honcho) we expect his men to give everything for a place in the semis. The Tigers won’t be an easy opposition though thanks to the returning Manu Tuilagi and the ever-improving Vereniki Goneva. Clermont by five.
Saturday 5th April, 6.30pm – Ulster v Saracens
A tricky one this: a match-up between notorious ‘peak-too-sooners’ Ulster and the inconsistent (on the European stage at least) Saracens. Having said that, Ulster pulled off arguably the result of the group stages with their impressive away win at Montpellier. They backed that up with a narrow win at Welford Road against Leicester. They certainly have the credentials and the players to overturn Sarries…it’s whether they have the nerve. At home in front of a partisan Ravenhill crowd, we think they’ll do it. An Ulster victory by three points.
Sunday 6th April, 4.30pm – Toulon v Leinster
Arguably the tie of the round. Last year’s winners (and probably the richest rugby union side in history) against the flair and attacking style of three-time winners Leinster. Brawn vs brain, champion vs champion, Wilkinson vs O’Driscoll. Stats tell us that only one in four Heineken Cup quarter finals are won by the away team. Could the boys from Dublin be this year’s anomaly? Quite possibly, but it will be close…very close. It could well come down to a battle of the place-kicks. If Jimmy Gopperth can match Wilkinson’s accuracy, the Irish side will win. That’s a big ‘if’ though. Red Rugby’s backing him and his team mates to win by one.
So wherever you’re watching the games this weekend, enjoy it. Next year’s European Cup may well be bigger and better than anything seen before, but the Heineken Cup will always be synonymous with great rugby occasions like the ones offered over the next few days. Make the most of it while it’s still there.