Friday, 17 December 2010

Heineken Cup Round 4: Previews and Predictions

Round four sees the return legs of last weekend’s Heineken Cup fixtures. Depending on the results in certain pools, some sides could nail-on their progression to the knock out stages while others will fall by the wayside.

But what lessons will each team take from the games a week ago? Will we see different sides triumph or will it be more of the same from round three? Here are my previews and predictions.

Leinster v Clermont

Last Sunday, Leinster came away from Parc des Marcel Michelin with a losing bonus point in the 20-13 defeat by Clermont – a great effort when you consider their injury list. Sean O’Brien stood out in the back-row with 38 carries, repeatedly breaking the gain line and putting in tackle after ferocious tackle. The physicality of Isaac Boss at scrum-half helped to neutralise the threat of opposite number Morgan Parra around the fringes of the scrum, and Leinster fly-half Jonny Sexton was once again impressive at 10. The stand-off was key in creating Shane Horgan’s try and kicked his goals well. On the downside, Leinster did give away two tries due to missed tackles with Julien Malzieu, Anthony Floch and Aurélien Rougerie again showing they are an immense force in the Clermont backline. On paper, Clermont should beat Leinster again but away from France they are vulnerable. Will Brock James crumble under the pressure of returning to Ireland? The fly-half threw away 26 points in last year’s quarter-final at the RDS. However, this game takes places at the brand spanking new Aviva stadium so maybe he won’t have to wrestle with those particular demons on Saturday. Sadly for the home crowd there are question marks over the fitness of Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are still ruled out.

My prediction: It’s boring but it’s true: French teams sometimes forget to turn up when they’re away from home. Leinster by 6.

Bath v Ulster

Ulster beat Bath 22-18 last Saturday at Ravenhill in a game that seesawed right until the final minute. The Magners league side is in a rich vein of form in Europe, having won all but one of their last five Heineken Cup games. They currently lie second in their pool, two points behind Biarritz. Brian McLaughlin’s men now have an excellent shout of qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time since winning the trophy in 1999. The fact that the Irish province have won all three of their previous meetings with Bath and are the form team away from home in the Magners league spells trouble for Steve Meehan’s men. However, Aironi’s shock win over Biarritz means progression from pool four is still up for grabs for both of these teams. Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris, Iain Humphreys and Andrew Trimble all impressed for Ulster last week. Can they lead Ulster to a double over a tepid Bath side who have won just one of their last six Heineken Cup games?

My prediction: Bath will need to step up and find another level of intensity to beat the in-form Ulster and I think they will find this at home. Bath by 5.

Toulon v London Irish

Toulon are the only side in their pool to get an away win, and if the Ospreys can beat Munster at the Liberty Stadium then Philippe Saint-André’s men will go top of pool 2. Last weekend the boot of Jonny Wilkinson kicked Toulon to a 19-13 win at the Madejski and London Irish boss Toby Booth has called the rematch a ‘do or die’ game for the Exiles’ Heineken Cup hopes. Toulon are a team packed full of superstars but last weekend the front row shone on a chilly day in Reading, with flanker Joe van Niekerk also putting in a great performance. The Exiles’ form has fallen off a cliff in recent weeks and they are currently bottom of their pool. Toulon, on the other hand, have won three games in a row and look to be hitting their stride. However, a win in France would catapult London Irish into second spot if Munster do the double over the Ospreys.

My prediction: The Exiles fell short at home and I can’t see them overturning Toulon in the south of France. Toulon by 9.

Leicester v Perpignan

Perpignan battered Leicester up front in the scrum last Saturday but the French side are an entirely different proposition away from home. Confidence is key to their performance and whilst they will come to Welford Road buoyed by last week’s win they will face a much sterner test. Leicester have a real winning mentality at home and Perpignan’s cause won’t be helped by the fact that full-back Jerome Porical is out after he rediscovered his form last weekend. Leicester Tigers never say die, and this determination saw them sneak a losing bonus point last week – something which could be crucial when the pool stages reach their conclusion. Richard Cockerill’s men still head up pool five on 11 points, but both Perpignan and the Scarlets are breathing down their neck on 10 points each. Only a bonus point win and denying Perpignan any points will be good enough for the home fans.

My prediction: Last weekend’s game was close with Perpignan edging out Leicester by 5. This week I think Leicester will get the win by the same margin. Tigers by 5.

Here are the rest of my predictions:

Biarritz v Aironi Rugby: Biarritz by 25.

Racing Metro 92 v Saracens: Racing by 9.

Benetton Treviso v Scarlets: Scarlets by 33.

Ospreys v Munster: Ospreys by 4.

Toulouse v Glasgow: Toulouse by 26.

Cardiff Blues v Northampton: Northampton by 5.

Edinburgh v Castres: Edinburgh by 3.

Wasps v Newport-Gwent Dragons: Wasps by 9.

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