The Heineken Cup rolls into town this weekend to provide an early festive feast of rugby. I’ve picked out the key games for the previews but you can find the rest of my predictions below. In Pool One, Northampton hope to make it three wins from three against Cardiff Blues, while Pool Two sees Leinster travel to Clermont, the French side hoping to exact revenge after last year’s quarter final defeat at the RDS. Munster host the Ospreys in Pool three’s big clash and the final game I’ve chosen to focus on is Leicester’s trip to Perpignan – both huge games between the top teams in their respective pools. As always, please let me know what you think in the comments.
Northampton v Cardiff Blues
Northampton are almost unbeatable at the moment. I say almost as the only game they have lost this season was a league game at the hands of Saracens. The Saints are now on a run of nine unbeaten games in all competitions, which would probably have been 10 had their match against Leeds not been called off last weekend. Northampton nearly tripped up against Castres in the Cup in round one but now the Frankins Gardens based club looks like a much more organised and well-oiled machine. Prop Soane Tonga’uiha is joint top try-scorer in the league, and along with Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati, the Saints front row is a dynamic, ball carrying unit that dominates at the set-piece. We all know what the Saints’ backline is capable of, even without England boys Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. This is a massive worry for Blues boss Dai Young, who will be without Wales centre Jamie Roberts, Wales wing Leigh Halfpenny, full-back Ben Blair, lock Deniol Jones and prop Rhys Thomas. It’s an extensive injury list but Cardiff will be boosted by the return of the seemingly never aging flanker, Martyn Williams and John Yapp from Barbarians duty. The visitors also have key man Xavier Rush at number eight, and along with Casey Laulala at centre Northampton could have a few problems – but probably not enough to derail them.
My prediction: It’s a brave man or woman who bets against the Saints at the moment, especially at home. Northampton to win by 12.
Clermont v Leinster
Who can forget last year’s quarter final between these two sides at the RDS? Clermont fly-half Brock James imploded and missed kick after kick after kick to let Leinster progress to the semi-finals. Clermont’s away form has been poor this season but they are fantastic at their home ground, Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. Defensively Clermont are aggressive and they beat Top 14 leaders Toulouse 32-25 last weekend. ‘Petit Generale’ Morgan Parra will be the key man for the home side, especially now he has taken the pressure away from Brock James in the goal kicking department. Leinster number eight Jamie Heaslip will need to neutralise the sniping scrum-half, and without Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, and a big doubt over the fitness of Brian O’Driscoll, Leinster will be pleased to come away with a losing bonus point. As an interesting sideshow, this game has the extra frisson of seeing Leinster coach Joe Schmidt return to the club he left last season after a stay of three years.
My prediction: Both of these sides lie seventh in their respective leagues and this game will be a fascinating rematch after last year’s tense quarter-final. However, away from home and with injury issues, I think Clermont will come out on top by 9 points.
Munster v Ospreys
This is certainly one of the biggest fixtures of the round. The Ospreys travel to Thomond Park in search of their first Heineken Cup win over two time Cup winners Munster. The Welsh club have beaten the Irish province there in the league on the way to the title last season, and if they are to win this weekend they must take the wily Munster forwards on at the breakdown. Paul O’Connell looks set to make his comeback for the home side after missing most of 2010 - a massive boost for Munster at this crucial point in the season. However, things aren’t quite as rosy for the Ospreys. Full-back Lee Byrne is ruled out with a broken thumb after he kind of forgot to get it checked out not once, but twice. Shane Williams is also sidelined with a shoulder injury while back-row forward Marty Holah serves a one match ban. Last week, Munster beat Cardiff Blues 15-9 in the league to stay in top spot while the Ospreys beat Edinburgh in a convincing 33-16 performance at the Liberty Stadium.
My prediction: This is first plays second in Pool three and a win for either side would put them in a strong position to qualify. Can the Ospreys break the Heineken Cup hoodoo at Thomond Park? I don’t think so. Munster by 8.
Perpignan v Leicester
A win in Perpignan would show that Leicester are really starting to fire. The Tigers won their first league game away from home last weekend when they beat then second place London Irish 23-14 at the Madejski. It was the perfect preparation for Richard Cockerill’s men ahead of their trip to the south of France, leapfrogging the Exiles into second place in the Aviva Premiership and reminding themselves they can win on the road. Perpignan are a lowly 10th in the French Top 14 and lost 23-13 last week away at Castres. However, the Stade Aimé Giral is an intimidating place to go and the Tigers will need to be at full strength to wrestle any points from the Catalonian bear pit. England fly-half Toby Flood is fit and will play alongside Ben Youngs at half-back. But the big threat can be found in the forwards as the home side have an impressive pack. Leicester will need to match Nicholas Mas and chums at the set piece but looking at the way they demolished London Irish’s scrum last week, including being awarded a penalty try, they could be in good shape. However, watch out - Perpignan number eight, Henry Tuilagi, will be exerting massive force in the back row and looking to get one over his brothers Alesana and Manu.
My prediction: Travelling such a long way is tough and Perpignan will be a real test for the Tigers. However, I think Leicester might just nick this one and all but seal their progression from the pool stages. Leicester by 3.