Patrick Guiney previews Irish chances in the upcoming Heineken Cup and their prospects should they overcome their stiff opposition
With the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup fast approaching, scourers of Irish rugby players and fans can turn their attention to the nailbiting encounters of exciting European rugby ahead. It is a chance for the returning Irish internationals to put the ghosts and missed tackles to rest, and once again show the clinical finishing and raw passion that Irish club rugby is notorious for.
A potential clash of the titans is almost inevitable as Leinster and Munster could meet in the final of this year’s Heineken Cup after the sides were kept apart in the semi-final draw. The Irish sides will have to do it the hard way, however, as both will have to travel away from home if they get through their respective quarter-final clashes.
Should Leinster beat Clermont Auvergne, they will travel to play the winners of Toulouse and Stade Français, while Munster must once again overcome Northampton at Thomond Park to face either Biarritz or Ospreys in the semis.
Reigning champions Leinster have an appointment with Clermont, which should prove the must-see match of the quarter-finals. “First up for us is Clermont,” said Leinster captain Leo Cullen. “If we can get past them then we will start looking at the challenge of facing either Toulouse or Stade Français in Paris. The quality of the teams left in the Heineken Cup is just unbelievable, and this season the French teams have really hit back with their teams winning four of the six pools.”
For both provinces, the French teams left in the competition will be the most daunting of opponents, as all French opposition have a vast pool of talent with players returning from an unbeaten Six Nations. The first of the two quarter-finals on French soil will launch the Saturday sequence of matches when Biarritz Olympique entertains the Ospreys.
The Pool Two winners will be taking their fixture across the border into Spain, to play at the 32,000 Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian. It will be the fourth knockout match Biarritz have played at the venue and their sixth game overall.
As well as beating Munster and Sale Sharks in the last eight in Spain, they also defeated Bath there in the semi-finals in 2006. Their only Heineken Cup defeat in San Sebastian came in 2007 when Northampton Saints pipped them 7-6 in the quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, Connacht received a favourable draw in the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup after they were handed a home tie against French side Bourgoin.
Whatever the fate is for our remaining Irish provinces in European cup rugby, it will undoubtedly be an enthralling final which once again shows the quality of rugby being played by the Irish clubs and European counterparts in the northern hemisphere.