Rocky's Rumble - The 2009/10 Heineken Cup Quarter-finals
7 April 2010 16:56pm
Rocky Elsom, the pundits player of the tournament last year and Heineken Cup winner with Leinster last season, gives his view on the four quarter-finals this week.
Rocky's Rumble - The 2009/10 Heineken Cup Quarter-finals:
Now is the time that the genuine contenders shift up a gear and the well performing pretenders get left behind. Leinster did it last year coming from 7th to win, Leicester have done it in the past and Munster have probably done it best. The excellent pool form shown by some of the sides has handed them favourable home ground advantages, while some of the final eight will be feeling fortunate to still be alive. However history has shown that no teams are untouchable at this stage of the tournament and even the most solid of castles can be stormed and this year's Final series has the makings of one of the best so far. The powerhouses of European Club Rugby Toulouse, Munster and Leinster, the emerging forces from the Top14 and the Premiership Clermont Auvergne and Northampton have made it through. The fading stars of France Stade Francais and Biarritz also get their chance, which adds a great element to this year's tournament given, both teams standings in the Top14 being precarious at best. Rounding out the final eight is the ever-ambitious, internationally stacked, Ospreys as the only Welsh qualifier.
Leinster v Clermont -
The Finals kick of with a Friday night blockbuster pitching defending Heineken Champions and all around good guys of the rugby world Leinster against one of the most well drilled sides in Europe, Clermont Auvergne. Clermont are well known underachievers when it comes to winning silverware, having famously fallen in their last 10 appearances in Top14 Finals but the feeling is that this could be their breakthrough year and with out-half Brock James, captain winger Aurelien Rougerie, French scrumhalf Morgan Parra and forceful direct pack they are dangerous opponents. They will travel to Dublin, presumably without their full legion of fans, somewhat better prepared for what looks to be a mighty occasion. One factor in Clermont's favour is that they seem to play their best football out side of the biggest occasions, and this being big but not the biggest they should do ok. Another factor that may or may not be to their benefit is that they've worked hard at the mental side of performing and in particular performing away from home. One would hope the attention to this area has been somewhat of a recent initiative given previous years' falls at the final Top14 step, but they are a dangerous side away from home. Leinster will want to unleash some of the demons early on Friday night and stop in any way shape or form Clermont getting comfortable with what seems an obvious and well-drilled game plan.
Their coach Vern Cotter, the Cantabrian with a reputation for gruelling training sessions and a low tolerance for fools probably has been pretty happy to date with what his men have produced, but this will be a massive test. Clermont look near enough to a complete team, which is just as well because they share similar strengths to the Dublin based outfit. Normally Clermont would pose a threat to any team through their centres but with Leinster having one of the best defensive centre pairings in Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy also doubling up as one of the best attacking pairings there's a big chance one of Clermont's real attacking weapons could be nullified and spend most of the night defending against an Irish pair that has wreaked havoc in this tournament for over a decade.
As great as it is to see opposing centre pairings launching punishing raids on each other, al la the Lions v the Springboks in games one and two, every rugby man worth his salt knows that the real battle happens up front and this one will be good. Two packs well drilled and hungry, Leinster with 8 internationals in their forwards roster and probably an ninth if the Cook Islands could get their act together, they are going to take some stopping. Leinster look the stronger in this match up but as with both Irish teams this weekend they face considerable danger having drawn what look to be the strongest teams in the English Premiership and the Top14.
Verdict - Leinster Vs Clermont: Leinster to win
Sources tell me Clermont are bringing 3,000 supporters, despite it being a Friday night game, but I can't see them overcoming the current Champions.
Biarritz v Ospreys -
Both are struggling in their respective domestic leagues and have repeatedly underestimated oppositions, at times much to their detriment. The expensively put together Ospreys got to this stage last season and were taken apart by Munster. They are again the Celtic League's underachievers. Even with Jerry Collins and more 6 Nations internationals than any other team in the Finals, including player of the tournament Ireland's Tommy Bowe, they have yet to gel. They of course have the firepower to defeat any team but it's their consistency and possibly will to win that is mostly in question.
Biarritz on the other hand look to be somewhat more mature than the Ospreys in that they have become (post the 6 Nations) very lucid about what it takes to win at the top level and understanding of where their weaknesses lie. Led by Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili, who seems to have taken the responsibility of leading the team and particularly with their desire and intent on the field, Biarritz look a much more formidable outfit. Where they were not only underestimating opponents but seemed to have a degree of naivety about what it took to win rugby matches, they now seem to have gained a new sense of focus and drive.
Replaced, along with Stade Français, in the French Top 6 by Racing-Metro 92 and RC Toulon they now have a tough road ahead to be eligible for the Heineken next season; even allowing that their last three games in the Top14 championship have helped their cause. It seems as though motivation is being considered first in the selection of the side and with the match being played in the Basque Region, they may well be an extremely motivated group, which any good coach will tell you is the most important element of any team.
The prospect of a Biarritz team being empowered by 30,000 supporters in San Sebastian the capital of that Basque Region should be a serious cause for concern for Osprey supporters. Many of the Biarritz players, Imanol Harinordoquy, in particular are very serious about their rich Basque heritage and I wouldn't say this would be a factor lost on too many of the players or staff. Reading out the line-ups you shouldn't be able to get money on the Ospreys, but I do feel Biarritz is on an ascending curve and the Ospreys are not the summit.
Verdict - Ospreys Vs Biarritz: Biarritz to win
Reading out the line-ups you shouldn't be able to get money on the Ospreys, but I do feel Biarritz is on an ascending curve and the Ospreys are not the summit.
Munster v Northampton -
This is going to be a huge battle. Munster has lost some of their air of recent invincibility and Northampton look only too ready to knock them off. If Keith Earls and Paul O'Connell are out they are extremely vulnerable. There is a feeling of expectation building around Northampton, they are absolutely flying through the Guinness Premiership and they are playing with confidence and at a guess I'd say they like the draw they've been given.
Thomond Park won't worry them second time around in this year's tournament and as the only English representative team their aggressive style may be big trouble for a Munster team not quite firing on all cylinders. It is a reasonable question to ask how a team that has won 2 Heineken Cups and a Magners League Title in the last three years and has had much the same roster, with the addition on Jean De Villiers, is now looking vulnerable at a time where they normally pick up the pace.
There is a thought that the Munster pack is aging, but they weren't exactly young last year and achieved silverware. I'd say what has had the biggest effect on Munster is the way the breakdown is being refereed. Their ability to slow the breakdown, without attacking the ball, was invaluable to a side that also had a great goal and tactical kicker as well as a formidable lineout. Forcing teams to play from slow ball meant Munster could have an off day and still win and if they were on, look no further than this stage last year where Wales' Ospreys copped a hiding.
Images of Alan Quinlan and Paul O'Connell stepping over a pile of bodies on to and around where a half back is trying to pass the ball have all but dried up and this is hurting Munster big time. Sure they still look strong but it's just not the same. I do wonder how they'd be fairing had they signed Australian number 7 George Smith who could attack ball better than nearly everyone, but I guess Northampton could be possibly closer if recent squad addition Dan Vickerman, who also would be pretty handy in these types of occasions, is involved on the day.
However, despite the vigour and intent the Northampton pack have been playing with it is quite a different proposition when you are up against a group of eight who may not make it out of Limerick alive should the result be less than favourable. Munster still has a far superior lineup but I do feel the danger of a confident Northampton side riding some self generated momentum and I'd say the Stags would feel this danger too.
Verdict - Munster Vs Northampton: Munster to win
There's a lot telling me Northampton could win this one, but I can't see how the Munster players could let that happen at home.
Toulouse v Stade Français -
In any other year Stade Francais taking on Toulouse would be a dream draw with two of the most successful franchises in the tournament's history going head to head, but there is a strong feeling Stade are not up to it this year and their domestic form would not hold out too much hope. Their roster boasts more than 8 internationals from this year's 6 Nations with plenty of other talent across the board but things aren't working out as planned for the French glamour club and they could have got an easier draw than the Heineken Cup specialists having only just eased their Top14 relegation worries.
However both teams go into the match having had great preparation this weekend with Toulouse overcoming Racing Metro and Stade accounting for a well performing Clermont in a tough 19-10 victory on Saturday evening. Warnings have been issued this week by legendary Toulousean coach Guy Novès and ERC15 nominee about his team's readiness and you'd tend to believe him with 3 Heineken Cups to his name and internationals like Dusautoir, Poitrenaud, Jauzion, Servat, Clerc, Michalak and Jean-Baptiste Poux likely to play.
However Toulouse playing at home have slipped up in the quarter finals before by under-estimating the opposition and it's not as if Stade don't have some stars of their own who could rise to the challenge ahead of them and come out on top in Toulouse. It provides the only chance of a silver lining to an otherwise dismal season that has so far only seen the once European power club avoid relegation. If Stade were to progress further in the tournament and with the Final in Paris this could be the beginning of another great European Cup underdog journey similar to the one I enjoyed with Leinster last season. However, I just don't see them turning out a Leinster circa 2006 type performance, which is what I think it is going to take to topple the French masters of the Heineken Cup.
Verdict - Toulouse Vs Stade: Toulouse to win
If Guy Noves thinks his men are ready then I don't see this Stade Francais side being able to contain them.
Well all in all the Heineken Cup has served up another cracking weekend of European Rugby… let's see who makes it to May!!
The directors of ERC voted unanimously at a Board meeting to postpone all decisions including the release of further instalments of ERC's distributable central revenues to the six shareholder countries until 19 February next when the Board will meet again to reconsider the issue.