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Heineken Cup
Mission Improbable
Paul Eddison
April 3, 2014
Felipe Contepomi leads the line against Toulouse in 2006 © Getty Images

In 17 years of Heineken Cup quarter-finals there have been exactly 17 away wins - an average of exactly one per season - so what does it take to overcome the odds?

Arguably the most famous win of the lot came eight years ago in Toulouse when Leinster, then a team who struggled to turn potential into results, beat Guy Novès' reigning champions in a stunning 41-35 success.

While they were not to break their European duck that season, following up the win with a semi-final defeat to Munster, for prop Will Green the Toulouse success was the foundation on which their three European titles in four years were built.

He explained to ESPN: "We had a couple of big wins that season, at home to Munster and against Bath away in the pool stages, but we struggled for consistency.

"Michael Cheika was just putting together what he really wanted from us so that we could fulfil our potential.

How will the travellers fare?

  • Leinster: This will be the Irish province's fifth away quarter-final, having famously seen off Toulouse as described in 2006, before downing Harlequins 6-5 at the Stoop in a game that will forever be remembered for the 'Bloodgate Scandal' on the way to a first Heineken title in 2009. Their two defeats came at the hands of English opposition, Wasps in 2007 and Leicester in 2002, both of whom would go on to lift the title.
  • Leicester: Like Leinster, the Tigers have played four previous away quarter-finals, losing three in Toulon, Leinster and Pau, with their lone victory coming in Ireland when they comprehensively saw off O'Driscoll and co 29-13 in 2005. Their run that year would end in the following round when Toulouse rolled them over at the Walkers Stadium on the way to claiming their third Heineken Cup title at Murrayfield against Stade Français.
  • Saracens: For Sarries a trip to Ulster represents uncharted territory as they prepare for a first-ever away quarter-final. Their previous appearances in the last eight have all come at home, as they beat the Ospreys and Saturday's opponents Ulster in 2008 and last year respectively, while Clermont proved too big and too strong in 2012.
  • Toulouse: Only their hosts this weekend, Munster, have played more away quarter-finals than Toulouse, who prepare for their sixth last eight fixture on the road this weekend. Twice they have come away victorious, both times against French opposition, Dax in 1997 and Biarritz 14 years later. They have never played at Thomond Park, but previous away quarter-finals against Ulster, and more recently Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh have resulted in their elimination.

"Looking back now I really feel like that was a turning point for Leinster and a big part of what they went on to do. It's probably changed a little now, but at the time very few teams went and won in France in big games.

"Perhaps you might win a match at the end of the knock-out stages against a team who was out, but in the big matches, it just didn't happen.

"Especially when you look at that Toulouse team, they were reigning champions with their win in Edinburgh, with Wasps we beat them in the final the year before, and they won in 2003, so they were a formidable team.

"Unfortunately we had a really poor day against Munster in the semi-finals, but I still feel that game played a big part in giving the team the confidence to go and win the competition."

At the Stadium Municipal in 2006 Leinster took the game to Toulouse, with Keith Gleeson hounding Freddie Michalak all game while Felipe Contepomi delivered a masterclass playing flat on the gainline and unleashing his three-quarters.

The coup de grace came when Leinster scored their fourth try through Shane Horgan to go 17 points clear with as many minutes remaining.

Green was heavily involved in the move, with a little give and go for Guy Easterby before Gordon D'Arcy changed the direction of the attack, and in a little sneak preview of the coaching that was to be critical to Leinster's success, the prop revealed it was actually a set move, despite appearing for all the world like a spontaneous decision from the centre.

Green explained: "The Horgan try off the back of a lineout was a planned move we'd been trying for three months, but that was the first time we actually pulled it off. It was the score that sealed it, with Stuart Barnes screaming in the commentary box, and it was a great time to get it right.

"Looking back that really was the most amazing feeling and a great win. Leinster have come a long way since then but that was a huge moment."

Brian O'Driscoll, Cameron Jowitt and Denis Hickie scored the other Leinster tries that day, with Contepomi adding 21 points from the kicking tee to go with his sublime distribution. Eight years on Leinster find themselves in a similar position, heading to France to take on the defending champions, this time Toulon.

Of the starters that day, only three remain, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy and fellow Six Nations winner Jamie Heaslip, while replacement Rob Kearney will playing a bigger role on Sunday.

Opposite them once more will be Michalak, no doubt a replacement for the returning Jonny Wilkinson, but beginning to rediscover the form that makes him such a threat.

And while taking down the champions in their backyard takes some doing, Green believes Leinster have what it takes.

He added: "It will be very difficult but if any team is going to do it, then Leinster look well-suited to it. Their team matches up quite well against Toulon, who are very powerful but quite conservative. And they will go in with a lot of confidence after the Six Nations win. I'm going to put a fiver on them to do it."

History suggests one away team will emerge from the quarter-finals, if Leinster are to be that team they will have to rewrite the record books once more and become the first side to beat Toulon at Mayol in the Heineken Cup. We'll find out on Sunday if they can do it.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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