Sport Rugby

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Succession skirmish won't be for the faint-hearted

The pretenders to Europe's club throne are signalling intent, writes Eddie Butler

Paul O'Connell is a reminder that, at their best, Munster did not make mistakes under strain
Paul O'Connell is a reminder that, at their best, Munster did not make mistakes under strain

There remains nothing of Wales, back-to-back winners of the Six Nations, in either the Amlin Challenge Cup or the Heineken Cup.

It is perhaps even stranger that this does not seem as unusual as the absence of Leinster and Toulouse in the last eight of the Heineken Cup, the winners of the past four years both finding themselves relegated to the Amlin.

Is there a link somewhere? Probably not. Reigns come to an end. Wales are plain batty. The reality is that through qualification, however flawed in its original seeding process, eight made it through and 16 didn't.

Clermont Auvergne and Toulon will not be ruing the failure of Toulouse. This is their chance to seize power. Ulster and Munster will argue that they more than compensate for Leinster. Don't believe a word Harlequins, Saracens and Leicester say about an ability to compete because of the English salary cap.

Clermont are at home to the third French club, Montpellier, on Saturday and will win. Someday, someone will take the mountain fortress, but not the visitors from the south this week.

Montpellier earned a first-ever place in the last eight thanks to a 23-3 home win over Toulon in the final pool game. Toulon responded, as the recruiting rules permit, by adding Rocky Elsom (75 caps for Australia) and Danie Rossouw (62 for South Africa) to a squad already bursting with famous names.

With all due respect, those who Montpellier have added, Hamish Gard, Charles Geli and Nahuel Lobo, do not bring quite the same experience. Prop Lobo has played twice for Argentina.

Leicester have to go to the Stade Felix Mayol in the heart of the rough old naval town of Toulon next Sunday. Sticking together, the Leicester way, is the key to everything.

There will be some anxious moments as Toulon come at them from all the angles that the boot of Jonny Wilkinson can still find, and with all the thrust of Mathieu Bastareaud at full tilt. Surviving the storm by any and all means is the sole priority and will require the determination of Leicester at their most fixatedly dogged. It will possibly not be one for seekers of enlightenment.

Come to think of it, the other two quarter-finals, pitching English clubs at home to Irish provinces, do not promise to be a riot either.

Munster have been trying to play more expansively this season under Rob Penney and they may have the electric Simon Zebo back on the wing, following his recovery from a broken foot, but the Stoop may be a place for a return to more traditional values. Namely, that Munster pour forward with ridiculous commitment and somehow combine this frenzy with good discipline. Paul O'Connell is back, a reminder that, at their best, the champions of 2006 and '08 did not make mistakes under strain and did not give away easy penalties.

Harlequins will test that capacity to remain cohesive under stress. They have remained positive in an Aviva Premiership that is devoted to shutting down space, and must now stretch Munster further. But will their skills stand the test of a defensive rush that will make even the Premiership's look a little slow off the mark?

In a test between a side reining back on their experimentation and a home team committed to taking their invention up a level, perhaps Harlequin's director of rugby Conor O'Shea may have an insight into what may well provoke error among the ranks of the Munstermen. The scrum, it goes without saying, will be a source of many points and much frustration.

There was a time when Ulster were sweeping all before them, including Northampton away in the Heineken Cup. But then they lost the return fixture and were defeated by the Ospreys, Glasgow and Edinburgh in the Pro12.

They also lost a host of players to injury. The good news for them is that their group of imports is recovered: captain and second row Johann Muller; fullback Jared Payne; No 8 Nick Williams; and scrumhalf and total inspiration Ruan Pienaar.

Saracens are fit and flinty and will offer Ulster no time to rediscover their form of early season. They have a little bonus in Mark McCall, their coach who learnt his rugby at home in Ulster.

The quarter-finals are all about a little slice of knowledge that will help press the lid down, and keep it there. There will be some fun, no doubt, but from London to the lower reaches of France, please be prepared to hold your breath for an hour.

Observer

Irish Independent

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