Heineken Cup Preview: Why it’s all about Leicester v Ulster

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Leicester's clash with Ulster promises to be the Heineken Cup match of the weekend
Leicester’s clash with Ulster promises to be the Heineken Cup match of the weekend
CASTRES, FRANCE – Leicester’s Heineken Cup match against Ulster is not quite winner-takes-all – after all, both sides are already assured of a place in the quarter-finals – but it’s as near as dammit is to swearing. And it is the tie of the final round of the pool stages.

Whoever wins will top Pool 5, and bag a home berth in the last eight, while the loser will have to be content with a best runner-up slot – and a road trip for their quarter-final. History is with the Tigers. They haven’t lost a Heineken Cup match at Welford Road since 2006. But Ulster have a record of their own to maintain. They are unbeaten in the competition this season.

Unstoppable forces and immovable objects spring to mind ahead of a game that promises to be the clash of the weekend – and one that would most likely grace the final at Cardiff.

Three-time winners Leinster kick off the Heineken Cup weekend at home to Ospreys on Friday night. After their comeback victory at Castres last week, Brian O’Driscoll and company need just a point from this game to make sure of a quarter-final berth. That should be a simple job at the RDS.

Northampton are the only side in Pool One that can – theoretically at least – overtake Leinster. But they need Ospreys to spring a shock in Dublin. They face Castres at the same time as the Irish and Welsh clubs meet. It will make for an odd evening at Franklin’s Gardens as Saints fans try to keep up with events in Dublin while watching another game unfold before their eyes.

A win for the home side could see them reach the knockout phase of the competition, if other results go their way. Even then, they need a bonus point, so it’s more likely that they’d drop down into the Amlin Cup. Defeat, however, would mean that the Top 14 champions jump into second in Pool One, with a shot at a place in the Amlin Cup.

Saracens should book their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals with victory over Connacht
Saracens should book their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals with victory over Connacht
Expect Aviva Premiership leaders Saracens to pick up the win they need to make sure of a quarter-final berth. They’re at home to Connacht, who have done coach Pat Lam proud with their Heineken Cup performances this season – notably that win at Toulouse. The Londoners were unable to replicate their opponents’ heroics at Ernest Wallon, which means – even with a win at the weekend – they’re looking forward to an away quarter final.

Sarries’ hopes of finishing at the top of the pool rest with Pro12 side Zebre. The Italians entertain four-time Heineken Cup champions Toulouse, who are notoriously bad travellers. Guy Noves’ side haven’t won away from Ernest Wallon in the Top 14 since last May. That said, they have won their two games on the road in this competition. Expect them to make it three this weekend, and force Saracens into a best runner-up slot.

Toulon head to Scotland to face Glasgow
Toulon head to Scotland to face Glasgow
Defending Heineken Cup champions Toulon qualified for the knockout phase of the competition with last weekend’s dominant display over Cardiff Blues, so – if you haven’t been following Rugby Wrap Up’s Top 14 coverage – it may be something of a surprise to hear about talk of a turnaround emanating from Stade Mayol.

But the richer-than-Croesus side have been struggling on and off the pitch. Bernard Laporte is in a spot of bother for comments made after a shock home defeat against Grenoble; and the Var side’s Top 14 record has been nothing to shout about, with five defeats in their last nine games.

The Heineken Cup has brought blessed relief from their Top 14 troubles. But a trip to cold and miserable Glasgow in January is far from anyone’s idea of a fun time. Expect an away win, but not a command performance at the tiny and hostile Scotstoun.

Anyone who thinks the match between Cardiff Blues and Exeter Chiefs is a dead rubber is dead wrong. If things go their way, the winners could win a shot at the Amlin Cup. Which means this match – between two attacking sides – could turn into a high-scoring thriller.

Montpellier’s home match against Benetton Treviso is a dead rubber – but not without interest. Fabien Galthie’s side reached the last eight last season, so will be disappointed not to make it to the knockout phase this time. They did, however, score four tries at Leicester and came within a whisker of beating the Tigers at home. They will be out to finish their Heineken Cup campaign on a high with a big win over the Italians.

Can Edinburgh spoil Munster's party at Thomond Park?
Can Edinburgh spoil Munster’s party at Thomond Park?
Munster have already qualified as Pool Six winners, but with a home quarter final up for grabs, they’ll be out to end the group stage with a big win. Their opponents at Thomond Park this weekend are Edinburgh, whose Heineken Cup campaign will finish when the final whistle blows. Just don’t expect them not to try to spoil the Munster party.

There’s also little more than pride to play for at Stade Aime Giral, where Top 14 side Perpignan entertain Aviva Premiership outfit Gloucester. Whoever loses will finish at the bottom of Pool Six – which is something both sides will want to avoid. Though, with nothing to play for it’s likely there will be a number of changes to the line-ups.

Clermont welcome Racing to Marcel Michelin in the all-Top 14 Heineken Cup match
Clermont welcome Racing to Marcel Michelin in the all-Top 14 Heineken Cup match
Harlequins were within eight minutes of continuing their remarkable Heineken Cup turnaround against Clermont at The Stoop last weekend. But they let the Top 14 leaders and last season’s losing finalists back into the game. And they lost, which leaves them needing to win at Scarlets if they are to book a place in the Amlin Cup. No pressure, then.

There’s definitely no pressure on Clermont. That win in London last weekend made certain of a place in the quarter finals. They’re playing bottom-of-Pool Four Racing Metro. And they’re at home. Where they have won every game since November 2009. There’s no reason to think they won’t win again.

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"