IT’S BEEN A rough journey for all concerned, but the 19th and final Heineken Cup has been whittled down to just four teams.
And, coincidence or not, they are the same four teams as last season with a slight variation in venue.
We’ve all watched rugby long enough to know that nothing can be taken for granted. So regardless of what the odds say, any team deserving enough of a berth at the semi-final stage has enough quality to win the competition outright in the Millennium Stadium final.
Here, we make the case for all four.
How they got here: Topped Pool 2 by seeing off Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues by some distance.
The only surprise was that they only won five of their six games, slipping to defeat in Cardiff. Since October, though, they’ve been steadily building and the quarter-final win over Leinster was a high water mark in dominance against one of the few sides thought capable of beating them.
Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Why we think they’ll win it: Toulon are a hard team to dislike despite having all the newest, shiniest toys and a Heineken Cup residing in the trophy cabinet. They are looking to build a legacy and, in this new era of European rugby, know that besting foes from Ireland, England and France is the best way to do that. Their win at Lansdowne Road last season merely gave them a taste for more.
The fact that they started Martin Castrogiovanni, Bryan Habana and Maxime Mermoz on the bench against Leinster, and coped so well with the early loss of Jonny Wilkinson, speaks volumes. Leinster are a very talented, tenacious team and they had nothing on Toulon in the quarters. The loss of Peter O’Mahony for Munster is crucial and yet even he may not have stemmed the Smith-Lobbe-Armitage axis in the back row.
Toulon will win in Marseille and in the final will have a superior blend of experience and physicality that will secure victory against either Clermont (again) or Saracens.
How they got here: Ended up as fourth seeds in the knock-out stages despite a torrid opening day defeat in Edinburgh. Public criticism from Rob Penney after that game appeared to reinvigorate the team’s mettle and they would go on to conquer Perpignan and Gloucester on their way to winning the remaining five pool games.
The quarter-final win over Toulouse ended up looking like a rout, but it began as at an incredibly intense tempo which the French side were simply unable to sustain.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Why we think they’ll win it: Even though they are back at this stage for the second year running, Munster are the outsiders to claim the trophy which they have set their reputation by.
Up against Toulon in Marseille means more fans, but a much less intimidating bear-pit. And after becoming everybody’s H Cup shoe-in, the Top14 runners-up may just be caught a little complacent when faced with Munster’s staunch refusal to be rolled over.
The Reds won’t have Ronan O’Gara on this trip south, but their x-factor in this competition is undeniable.
With Europe’s best second row and the Lions scrum-half guiding the way, Munster have the tools to make life extremely difficult for the reigning champs. The prospect of another final in Cardiff, the scene of their two previous successes, can instill nothing but belief that their name is the fairytale ending in the extended Heineken Cup saga.
How they got here: By now you’ll notice a theme: all four semi-finalists suffered an early defeat before finishing their pool strong. Clermont’s loss came away to Racing Metro, before recovering to win home and away against Harlequins and Llanelli.
Round six saw them consign Racing to last place in the pool while putting themselves as second seeds.
The quarter-final win over Leicester Tigers was an impressive victory, but only for the opening half when they took a 19 – 7 lead into the break before allowing Tigers to come back into the game and run them close in a 22 – 16 defeat.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Why we think they’ll win it: Major doubts remain over the mental strength of Vern Cotter’s side, but based purely on physical and technical attributes, Clermont are a joy to watch.
Morgan Parra is a clever influence from scrum-half, while Wesley Fofana offers some of the best individual running lines in the world. The likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga will reward the efforts of the grizzled ASM forward pack with tries.
The key to Clermont’s success will be the fact that they combine those superb parts into a thrilling collective effort at their best. With Cotter to leave at the end of the season and a degree of squad turnover to come, this group will be determined to finally end their European pain.
How they got here: The only Pool runner-up to make it this far, Saracens were eighth seeds after coming in behind Toulouse (who beat them twice) in Pool 3. Sarries were saved by their ability to run up big scores against Connacht and Zebre (each conceded 64 points in Allianz Park).
The quarter-final win over Ulster was much less straightforward despite the fourth minute red card harshly handed out to Jared Payne.
When all was said and done, however, Saracens did pull through and take a three-tries-to-nil victory, suffocating Ulster when they attacked for phase after phase searching for a winning score at the end. Had Owen Farrell not endured a shocking night off the kicking tee, his missed 11 points could have killed off the Ulster resistance shortly after it started.
Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO
Why we think they’ll win it: Nobody likes them and they don’t care. It’s overlooked in this part of the world (because Munster’s love affair came long before) but Sarries have been knocking on the door of Europe’s top table for some time, with a quarter-final and now three semi-finals in the past five years.
Clermont may feel a similar hunger, but in Twickenham the momentum and the small advantages will be with Mark McCall’s side.
If Farrell can find his kicking range again then that weapon can be added to a rock solid set-piece, powerful ball-carriers and the lethal Chris Ashton to make up an arsenal capable of defeating anybody.
Who do you think is going to win the Heineken Cup?