Battle for Europe
Sky Sports rugby union writer Tony Curtis assesses some of the key clashes ahead in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter: @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 03/04/13 2:16pm
A weekend of scintillating Heineken Cup action is fast-approaching - and to get you in the mood we bring you some of the key battles ahead.
Remember you can catch all of the action live on Sky Sports. Clermont against Montpellier gets us underway on Saturday on Sky Sports 1 HD (3.15pm), followed by Saracens' clash with Ulster at 6pm - with the match also available on Sky 3D.
On Sunday Harlequins against Munster will be on Sky Sports 2 HD from 1.30pm, with Leicester's visit to Toulon following at 4pm.
Harlequins v Munster
Nick Evans v Ronan O'Gara
New Zealand fly-half Evans has been in sensational form for Harlequins, scoring 1,374 points in 120 appearances since signing from the Blues in 2008. Arguably one of the best playmakers in the game, the 32-year-old is vital to Quins' hopes. Evans was named the RPA player of the season last May as he helped Quins to their maiden Premiership title.
O'Gara is just as key to Munster's ambitions, despite now being 36. Since making his debut in 1997, O'Gara has gone on to make 234 appearances for the province, scoring 2,537 points and winning two Heineken Cups, three league titles and the Celtic Cup along the way. The British and Irish Lions international is one of the best tactical kickers in the game and, despite being written off more than most, don't put it past him to recapture the old magic one last time.
Chris Robshaw v Peter Mahony
The England captain just seems to keep getting better, answering any criticism that comes his way with improved performances. The work-rate of the 26-year-old, who can play across the back row, is simply immense and he gets through a scary amount of graft. He has also proved he is up there with the best in terms of scavenging at the breakdown.
Like Robshaw, O'Mahony can cover blindside, openside and No 8, but it is definitely not a case of a 'jack of all trades, master of none'. The 23-year-old is gaining a growing reputation and was arguably the pick of the Ireland squad during a disappointing RBS Six Nations campaign. He has made 43 appearances for Munster - and a further 14 for Ireland - and he has already been compared the New Zealand great Richie McCaw for his athleticism and his work at the breakdown.
Olly Kohn v Paul O'Connell
At the age of 31, Harlequins lock Kohn finally gained an international call-up - and although he managed just seven minutes of action, he still finished up with a Six Nations winners' medal. It was a belated call for Kohn, who has put in the hard yards in the engine room at Quins for nearly seven years now and previously had spells at Bristol and Plymouth. Kohn, a powerful scrummager and a hugely effective defensive operator of at the breakdown, has been an unsung hero of Quins' rise - with the likes of Robshaw, Evans, Nick Easter and Danny Care stealing the headlines.
Conversely, O'Connell is no stranger to the limelight - with the Munster lock having captained club, country and the British and Irish Lions. The 33-year-old is the sort of man you want alongside you in the trenches as he will not take a backward step in the heat of battle. O'Connell, a master of the lineout, is making a timely return to action after a long injury lay-off.
Saracens v Ulster
Owen Farrell v Paddy Jackson
The talented Farrell is proving himself to be a class act on and off the field. He shows a steely determination and cool head that belies his youth, while he tackles above his weight in defence. He was nominated for the IRB player of the year award for a reason and looks set to tour with the British and Irish Lions in the summer.
Jackson is on course to proving his doubters wrong after last year's big-match nerves. Jackson froze in the Heineken Cup final against Leinster, however, he went away and came back a stronger player, earning a call-up by Ireland. His kicking has come in for criticism - particularly during the Six Nations - but there is no doubting his obvious potential.
Steve Borthwick v Johann Muller
The Saracens lock has never quite got the credit he has deserved over his career - and if England had enjoyed a period of success under him, then there is a good chance people's views on Borthwick would be different. The 33-year-old, though, is enjoying an impressive run of form and is vital to Saracens' challenge as he leads from the front. He is a quality lineout operator and a menace at the breakdown.
Muller is equally influential to Ulster, with the South African having a massive impact on the club since his arrival in 2010. The former Sharks second row is the talisman and he was crucial in their charge to the Heineken Cup final last season. Muller is the lineout general and a powerhouse at the scrum.
Schalk Brits v Rory Best
The all-action Brits is the epitome of the modern day hooker. He has quickly become a fans' favourite due to his approach to the game - with his scything breaks and work at the breakdown more akin to a flanker than a No 2. Brits has the X-Factor, so it is somewhat of a mystery that the 31-year-old has only won three caps for South Africa.
Ireland international Best is arguably the leading hooker among the home unions - and a Test place with the British and Irish Lions seems to be on the cards. Time and time again he delivers dynamic displays across the pitch, whether for club or country. His lineout throwing came in for criticism during the Six Nations, however, his all-round displays have more than made up for these blips.
Toulon v Leicester
Jonny Wilkinson v Toby Flood
A battle of the Newcastle old boys, Wilkinson was the headline act during their time at the Falcons while Flood was the understudy. Wilkinson has already booked his place in the annals of rugby history and has consistently performed at the highest level. Despite entering the twilight of his career, Wilkinson is still deadly accurate with his boot - as 329 points in the Top 14 this season testifies - while he is a monster in defence.
Flood has emerged from Wilkinson's shadow to carve out a successful career in the No 10 jersey. Like Wilkinson, Flood is an accurate kicker - he has landed 172 points in 17 appearances this season - however, the 27-year-old has developed his all-round game. Flood stands much flatter than most No 10s and his eye for a gap has helped the Tigers top the try-scoring charts in the Premiership.
Steffon Armitage v Julian Salvi
An intriguing clash between two No 7s who have been woefully overlooked by their countries, with Armitage capped just five times by England and Salvi only appearing for Australia A. Armitage has gone from strength-to-strength since swapping London Irish for Toulon in 2011, with the flanker named as the Top 14 player of the year after his debut season. Viewed by many as England's best scavenging openside flanker, Armitage is a nuisance at the breakdown while he weighs in with his fair share of tries.
Salvi is very much in the same mould as Armitage but, despite being tipped as a natural successor to George Smith in the Wallabies side, full international honours have failed to materialise. Unlike some No 7s, Salvi doesn't attack every breakdown and by picking his battles instead he has high turnover success rate.
Frederic Michalak v Ben Youngs
It seems like Michalak has been around forever, with the enigmatic half-back having made his international debut at 19. Able to play in both the No 9 and No 10 jerseys with consummate ease, Michalak is hugely talented playmaker with a bag of tricks. His temperament has been questioned in the past, however he has not been short of honours during his previous spell at Toulouse, while he helped the Sharks to the Super Rugby final before returning to France.
Like Michalak, Youngs too can suffer from inconsistency. Currently the favoured No 9 for England, Youngs is a real livewire on his day and he has an unerring ability to spot the gap. He plays the game at a high tempo pace and tries to keep his side on the front-foot.
Clermont v Montpellier
Napolioni Nalaga v Timoci Nagusa
One Fijian powerhouse + one fleet-footed Fijian winger = one hell of a match up in France. Nalaga has been in the form of his life this season, scoring tries for fun in Europe and the Top 14. Nagusa, though, also has an eye for the try line and has crossed for three times in the Heineken Cup this season.
Jamie Cudmore v Mamuka Gorgodze
Expect a full-bloodied contest between two no-nonsense forwards. Cudmore is not afraid of getting stuck in and he should enjoy the confrontation with Georgian giant Gorgodze.
Wesley Fofana v Santiago Fernandez
Another battle between brute force and flair. Fofana has proved he has pace and power, while Argentina international Santiago Fernandez is equally at home at fly-half, in the centres or at full-back.