It's another huge weekend of Heineken Cup rugby with quarter-final places well and truly up for grabs. As ever, here are my previews of the key games and predictions for the rest.
Toulon v Munster
This is a do-or-die game for Munster who are on the verge of missing out on the quarter-finals for the first time since 1998. If Toulon win they will top the pool which would deny Munster a straight passage into the last eight for the 13th consecutive season. Therefore it’s not overstating it when I say there is massive pressure on the visitors but Munster will take heart from last season’s trip to Perpignan. Their 37-14 win in the south of France shows what the men from Limerick can do when their backs are against the wall. Paul O’Connell is available for selection after serving his four-week ban for a flailing arm/face slap and could make his first start in nearly a year. If Munster are to come away from the Stade Mayol with a win the key area they need to tighten up on is discipline. They must reduce the number of penalties they give away and read how the referee is policing the breakdown and adapt their game accordingly. If they fail to do this and a certain Mr Jonny Wilkinson is wearing Toulon’s number 10 shirt they will be punished by multiples of three points all afternoon. Will the sum of Munster’s parts and wily ways be stronger than the superstars of big spending Toulon? It’s time for le crunch.
My prediction: It’s a really tough one to call. Munster always seem to pull it out of the bag when it matters the most so I’m going for Munster by 7.
Ulster v Biarritz
Ulster haven’t qualified for the last eight since they won the Heineken Cup in 1999. If Biarritz come out on top at Ravenhill the French side will top the pool making this another winner takes it all game. Stuart Barnes claimed this match is the biggest game for Ulster this century and I don’t think he is wrong. The home side claimed back-to-back wins over Bath in the previous two rounds to stamp their authority on this pool. However, Biarritz have won four of their last six away games to shatter the much peddled line that French teams are useless on the road. They also notched up an impressive 65-22 win over Agen last weekend. So will Ulster go into this game as favourites? Back-row Stephen Ferris is one of the key men for the Irish province with his pace from the base of the scrum. Half-backs Ian Humphreys and Ruan Pienaar will also have pivotal roles and have been a sensational combination for Ulster this season. However, this week they will once again face the guile, genius and amazing kicking game of scrum-half Dimitri Yachvilli. Clash of the day will no doubt be South African Pienaar versus the diminutive Frenchman.
My prediction: I’m not enjoying making my predictions this week. I would flip a coin to decide but it would probably land on its edge. I’m going to say Ulster by 4.
Scarlets v Leicester
Last weekend, Leicester reasserted their position of the top of the Aviva Premiership with a 27-16 win over Northampton Saints. The Scarlets are also in good shape and are currently second in the Magners league. When the West Walians travelled to Welford Road earlier in this competition, the ever hospitable Tigers served up a 46-10 thumping, running their visitors ragged in a six-try hammering. However, there is a certain hoodoo hanging over this game from a Leicester perspective: If the Scarlets win on Saturday they will knock Leicester out of the Heineken Cup at the pool stages for the second year in a row. Tigers fans, are you nervous? The West Walians have been playing well in the Heineken Cup this season, topping their pool after the first four rounds and scoring some sublime tries. However, they will need to combine their brand of attractive, expansive rugby with a hard, physical edge if they are to beat the Tigers and stack the odds in their favour of progressing to the quarter-finals for the first time in four years. Can Leicester be as good away from their fortress in the East Midlands?
My prediction: Leicester have hit their stride but the Scarlets are playing some scintillating rugby. I’m going to stick my neck out and say Scarlets by 8.
Glasgow v London Wasps
Wasps are two points behind reigning champions Toulouse in Pool 6 and are gunning for qualification. However, a defeat for the Londoners means Toulouse will top the pool ahead of their trip to Adams Park, making this a must win game for Wasps if they want to keep their dreams of qualification alive. Can the Aviva Premiership side put away one of arguably the weaker teams in the Magners league this weekend? In the 17-10 loss to Quins seven days ago, Wasps had the lion’s share of the possession in the second-half but failed to convert it into points. It was a massive cause for concern for coach Shaun Edwards and as a result Dave Walder has to start in order to give Wasps their best possible chance of winning this crucial clash. Back-row forward Andy Powell has won much deserved praise for his performances in the past couple of weeks and if Wasps can shore up their scrum then the scintillating pace of scrum-half Joe Simpson, a new call up to England’s EPS squad, will rip Glasgow to shreds.
My prediction: I realise I’ve not mentioned Glasgow at all in the preview of this game – for good reason. I think Wasps will win this one easily. Wasps by 15.
Here are my predictions for the rest:
Cardiff Blues v Castres – Cardiff by 12.
Clermont Auvergne v Racing Metro 92 – Clermont by 6.
Northampton v Edinburgh – Northampton by 14.
Bath v Aironi Rugby – Bath by 16.
Benetton Treviso v Perpignan – Perpignan by 22.
Leinster v Saracens – Leinster by 6.
Toulouse v Newport-Gwent Dragons – Toulouse by 19.