Saracens look to prove title credentials in France
January 10, 2014
Can Saracens knock over Toulouse or will they feel the force of le rouge et noir? © Getty Images
Round five of the Heineken Cup awaits the 24 teams this weekend and the knockout stages are starting to take shape. For some sides, the last two matches will offer a chance to regain face, find form and refocus as a place in the quarter-finals is already beyond them. For others, a spot in the final eight of the competition is tantalisingly close.
The top of the pools is a picture of Irish and French dominance. Leinster, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster and Munster sit pretty across the groups and in many ways, a place in the quarter-finals is theirs to lose. But there are a host of teams on their coattails. Northampton Saints, Cardiff Blues, Saracens, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers all realistically have a chance of usurping the table-toppers and progressing to the knockout stages - there are also those two coveted runners-up spots which offer pathway to the quarters.
As the battle over the future of European rugby continues to rage off the field, it is refreshing to be able to sit back and enjoy the Heineken Cup for what it's inherently meant to be about - the rugby.
The aforementioned sides are leading their various pools but while they have done well in the Heineken Cup, Toulon were woeful at the weekend as they fell to Grenoble in the Top 14 - a defeat that provoked a stunning outburst from coach Bernard Laporte. However, they are fifth in the top flight so it's not all doom and gloom at the big-spenders. Toulouse are experiencing some semblance of a recent renaissance and sit pretty in fourth in the French league and will be buoyed by their win over Clermont at the weekend.
The three Irish sides are heading up their respective pools and make up three of the top four spots in the RaboDirect PRO12. The Ospreys join them in that quartet but they have endured a Heineken Cup campaign to forget.
From the English point of view, the Aviva Premiership is currently being dominated by Northampton and Saracens. The latter are the top try-scorers in the Premiership, the Anglo-Welsh Cup and the Heineken Cup and will harbour some hope of knocking over Toulouse this weekend.
The key odds
Out of form
Connacht are rock bottom in the PRO12 and bar their memorable win over Toulouse in France, can take little from the current campaign. They face Zebre in the weekend's most undesirable tie while Treviso are also struggling. In the Premiership, Gloucester are short of form with a back-pedalling pack stifling their attacking game. Racing Metro fell to lowly Oyonnax at the weekend and are also out of the European picture. Despite their array of talent, they have struggled to gel this season and the Scarlets will fancy their chances of turning them over in Paris on Friday evening.
It's a tale of two Anglo-French clashes. On Saturday, Harlequins tackle Clermont at the Stoop. Anything less than a win for Quins and they will be out of the tournament. "The guys are desperate to get out and put in a performance," Quins boss Conor O'Shea said this week. "We'll approach this by going for it. It's the only way we can - if you try any other way against them you will die a slow death."
But the tie of the round is likely to come in Toulouse on Sunday. Le rouge et noir host fellow red and black donned side Saracens in a match which will be a true gage of just where Mark McCall's men are at present.
Six Nations looming large
There is no substitute for Test rugby but the Heineken Cup is perhaps the closest for those in the northern hemisphere. The intensity of Northampton Saints' double-header against Leinster was almost on the international barometer of rugby and for the six coaches who are preparing their respective sides for European action, the next two rounds may go some way to determine just who will start in that opening game of the Championship.
The Irish teams have enjoyed impressive campaigns © Getty Images
On Friday, the Scarlets will get a famous win against Racing Metro while Ulster will get the four-try bonus point win over Montpellier. Saturday will see triumphs for Leicester, Clermont, Exeter, Connacht, Cardiff Blues, Perpignan and Munster with Leinster, Northampton and Saracens winning on Sunday.
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