Heineken Cup: Clermont to beat Leicester, Saracens to bow out

 

This season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals will take place in four of the biggest rugby hotbeds on the planet and there's no doubt we are in for a raucous weekend.

The fans of Munster, Ulster, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon are as hardcore as it gets - you don't get any more passionate crowds than these four clubs.

The visiting players will know about it from the moment they arrive in these rugby-mad places - the staff in their hotel, the people in the shops, they'll all know who they are.

Home banker?

The 68 Heineken Cup quarter-finals have ended with the home club winning 51 times and the away team reaching the semis 17 times.

Historically the home side win 75% of the time in the last eight of the Heineken Cup and any team that pull off an away win this weekend - and I'm tipping one to do that - will have achieved a massive result.

There are three matches on Saturday, with Munster v Toulouse getting us under way at 13:30 BST; that is followed by Leicester's trip to Clermont (kick-off 16:00) and Ulster hosting Saracens at 18:00 in the last game of the day.

The final quarter-final sees Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon, the defending champions, welcome Brian O'Driscoll's Leinster to the south of France for a 16:30 kick-off on Sunday.

The record breakers

Munster and Toulouse have played more Heineken Cup games than any other teams - 136 and 137 respectively - and have won the title between them six times (Toulouse on a record four occasions to Munster's two), while the Irish province are appearing in the last eight for a record 15th time.

Paul O'Connell on the charge for Munster this season

Indomitable second row Paul O'Connell leads a Munster charge at Thomond

Munster, who beat Toulouse to win the 2008 final, might not be quite the force of old, but they're currently second in the Pro12 (Leinster lead the way with Ulster in third) and they rarely lose at home in Europe.

The fact their coach Rob Penney is leaving at the end of the season can't be helpful, but a side with the likes of Ireland flanker Peter O'Mahony and the iconic Paul O'Connell in the pack is always going to be both focused and ferocious.

Defenders beaten in 2013-14

1. Louis Picamoles (Toulouse) 27

2. George North (Northampton) 22

3. Alex Goode (Saracens) 21

4.= Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont), Mike Brown (Harlequins), Jonny May (Gloucester) 20

Toulouse may be the most successful club in Europe and boast players of the quality of France stars Louis Picamoles (who has made the most carries and beaten the most defenders in the competition this season), Yoann Huget, Yannick Nyanga and Maxime Medard, plus former All Black Luke McAlister, but they have been below their best during the current campaign and are down in sixth in the French Top 14.

The French aristocrats have always been renowned for their fluid attacking game, but this season we're only seeing the finesse and silky skills in glimpses and their style these days is all about power.

Munster's Thomond Park ground is among the most atmospheric in the sport and the home fans really are the extra man.

Big-match players should love being on the away side, but traditionally French clubs are not good away from home and I can see Toulouse, for all their stars, struggling on Saturday.

Prediction: Munster by about seven points

Massif task for Leicester

Leicester have to go to last year's beaten finalists Clermont - and no-one wins there.

The side from the Massif Central are unbeaten at home in 74 matches and, given the power of their pack and the quality of their backline, whoever the visitors are they are going to be underdogs.

Clermont fans pictured during the 2013 Heineken Cup

Clermont's Stade Marcel Michelin is a yellow and blue frenzy on game day

Wings Sitiveni Sivivatu (who has the most clean breaks with 14 and is second to Harlequins full-back Mike Brown in metres made) and Napolioni Nalaga are as threatening as any in Europe,

In a way Clermont's superb home record takes the pressure off, as you're not expected to win, and Tigers boss Richard Cockerill has been in a positive frame of mind, saying the English side have a chance to make history.

Most clean breaks this season

1. Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont) 14

2. Chris Ashton (Saracens) 12

3.= Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Napolioni Nalaga (Clermont), David Strettle (Saracens), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster) 9

Cockerill is a former Clermont hooker - he even played with current captain Aurelien Rougerie - so he'll be able to let his charges know exactly what to expect, not least from the 18,000 home fans pogo-ing about in a sea of yellow and blue.

Leicester have plenty of power and have run into form recently, with their hopes boosted by the return to action of England centre Manu Tuilagi.

But Clermont remind me of Leinster (now three-time Heineken Cup champions) a decade or so ago - they keep getting into position to win the competition without quite doing so.

You sense they are on the verge of something big, although they will have last year's final - when they choked against Toulon - on their mind as they enter the latter stages this year.

Prediction: Clermont to win by 10 or more points

A lively housewarming party in Belfast

Ulster were the only unbeaten team in the pool stages and Saturday's match will mark the unveiling of their new stand at Ravenhill.

Already among the most atmospheric grounds around, that takes capacity up to 18,000 - although the hosts reckon they could have "sold out the stadium eight times over" - and it's fair to say Saracens will find the noise a little louder than they're used to at their Allianz Park ground.

Leading try-scorers this season

1. Chris Ashton (Saracens) 7

2. Napolioni Nalaga (Clermont) 5

3 . = Maxime Medard (Toulouse, Chris Wyles (Saracens), David Strettle (Saracens), Miles Benjamin (Leicester 4)

The hosts have plenty of talent in the likes of number eight Nick Williams, Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson, his international team-mate Andrew Trimble on the wing and all sorts up front, like captain Johann Muller and hooker Rory Best.

But their key man is classy South Africa scrum-half Ruan Pienaar; he is so crucial to Ulster and their chances of going much further in the competition.

Saracens, who beat Ulster at home in the quarter-finals last year, can be very clinical and don't lack for quality themselves, with the likes of the Vunipola brothers and Schalk Brits in harness - but they were bullied by Toulouse earlier this season.

They also have three men in good try-scoring form, with Chris Ashton (seven) leading the standings and David Strettle and Chris Wyles (four apiece) tied for third with others.

Ruan Pienaar in action for Ulster

Pienaar provided the rugby brains that saw Ulster go unbeaten during this season's pool stages

If they can get forward through Billy Vunipola and co, and fly-half Owen Farrell kicks his goals they could win, but the crowd will be a real 16th man for the hosts.

As a former Ulster captain and coach, Saracens boss Mark McCall will know that as well as anyone, so he can at least warn his players about what to expect, but what you find in these parochial rugby hotbeds is that when their team get going the crowd really erupts and the home side receive such a lift they feel that they just can't lose.

Prediction: Ulster by about seven points

Jonny v BOD - end of the line for a legend

Toulon and Leinster are undoubtedly two of the big favourites - last year's champions against the side that won three titles in four years from 2009-20012 - but one of them is going to bow out at an early stage.

Jonny Wilkinson (second from right in front row lifting trophy) and his team-mates lift the Heineken Cup last year

Toulon won their first Heineken Cup last season with Jonny Wilkinson at the heart of their victory

Leinster are a side that can go anywhere and win, given their quality. They're packed with Irish internationals and have become like the dominant Munster side of seven or eight years ago... they have no fear.

However, Toulon's Stade Mayol is a real cauldron and their pre-match war cry Pilou Pilou  is one of the most stirring sounds in rugby.

Leading scorers 2013-14

1. Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon) 73 points

2. Dan Biggar (Ospreys) 65

3 . Rhys Priestland (Scarlets) 64

4.= Ian Keatley (Munster), Nick Evans (Harlequins) 62

6.= Jimmy Gopperth (Leinster), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues) 60

8. Dan Parks (Connacht) 56

9. Paddy Jackson (Ulster) 55

10. = Toby Flood (Leicester), Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) 54

The match is set to be the European farewell for either Toulon's former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, 34, who is expected to retire at the end of the season, or Leinster's former Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll, who will certainly be hanging up his boots at the age of 35.

I'm sure they'll have a bit of a chat after the game, but they'll both be putting their bodies on the line - as they have done all their careers - to try to help their sides into the last four.

As a kicker - and the leading points scorer in the tournament this season - Wilkinson is always going to have more influence.

It's unlikely we're going to see BOD roll back the years and score from 80m, beating three players on the way, but if Jonny lands a winning drop-goal in the last minute, would we be surprised?

Prediction: Leinster to win by a score

Follow the Heineken Cup on the BBC

There's coverage across the BBC this weekend of the quarter-finals. BBC Radio 5 live sports extra will have commentary of Clermont v Leicester from 17:05 BST followed by Ulster v Saracens at 18:25 BST.

There will also live text commentary of all three of Saturday's games on the BBC Sport website.

Jerry was talking to BBC Sport's James Standley