Stuart Barnes says Saracens, Leicester and Harlequins can make Heineken Cup last four
Stuart Barnes wouldn't be too surprised to see three English sides in the Heineken Cup semi-finals.
Last Updated: 21/01/13 11:19am
Leicester did a superb job in nullifying the French set piece that had so tormented them in round one. The scrum was clever and Louis Deacon and Geoff Parling were both outstanding - especially given the early loss of the formidable third man in the Leicester line out, Steve Mafi.
The other area of tactical supremacy was at half back. Ben Youngs was cool and mature and whilst Toby Flood had a curate's egg of a game his willingness to take responsibility for the Tigers was impressive, especially contrasted with the feeble failings of Lionel Beauxis. Guy Noves dithered too long and failed to make the right substitutions and Toulouse are gone.
Leicester live to travel to Toulon; it looks a forlorn challenge on the face of it but I would not be rushing to write Leicester off. They are nowhere near their best form but they have scrapped their way through a pool with the champions of the French and Celtic Leagues.
They have a pack that can stand up to Toulon as well as the cussed determination needed to thrive on the test awaiting them. If Manu Tuilagi is fit and raring the blunt attack of recent weeks can be rectified... no, this is not the obvious home win a few people were telling me in the immediate aftermath of a win that felt somewhat fortuitous.
Toulon had already qualified and hence their demolition at the hands and feet of Montpellier needs taking with a giant sized pinch of salt but even so there are enough failings in their game to give great hope to Leicester. Their aura of home invincibility was recently destroyed by Racing Metro. They are not invincible.
If the Tigers match them up front they have a great chance. Jonny Wilkinson endured an awful afternoon against Montpellier and Leicester will see him as a weakness. The French back line stutters whilst he sits deep and when he is flat he is uncomfortable. Nobody disputes his Owen-Farrell-like ability to nail the pressure kick but he is definitely a potential opportunity for Leicester.
It will not be easy but Leicester has real shot at the semi-finals and an all-English semi-final with Saracens would be no great surprise to me. Saracens beat Edinburgh and the elements to claim the all-important bonus point to give them home advantage and take Ulster away from Ravenhill.
Yes, I know the Saints won there this season but Ulster came off the back of an easy away win and were probably guilty of complacency. That would not be the case against Saracens.
The English team plays at a slightly higher tempo in Europe. They appear aware that the pace at which they play in England is not quite enough. The pack is powerful and Charlie Hodgson is playing like a potential Lion while another Lion-in-waiting, Farrell, is kicking the goals from the centre.
They are gathering in strength but they might need to. Ulster will be disappointed to let a home draw slip from them after their superb start to the season. The strength in depth of their squad has been found wanting. However, their starting fifteen is formidable. If Ruan Pienaar goes back to nine and Johann Muller regains fitness as expected, Ulster are a huge threat to any team.
The chilling efficiency of their destruction of the Saints in Northampton should not be forgotten. This is probably the tightest of the four quarter finals. It may be the bonus point at Welford Road that separates these sides come the final whistle.
Montpellier announced themselves as a European force with an intense effort against a Toulon team that might not have arrived in quite the right frame of mind. Had Fabien Galthie's team taken their chances they could have stunned the sport by pinching the pool top spot and grabbing a home match rather than the worst trip in Europe, a visit to Clermont.
Clermont are used to beating all comers on their ground and will be confident of seeing off a Montpellier team that will need to produce the game of their club's history to win this match. They have giants like Mamuka Gorgodze in their ranks but there is no way my crystal ball sees anything but a home victory.
Ditto in the game between Harlequins and Munster; Harlequins may be slightly flattered by the weakness of their pool but they have been rising to whatever challenges have come their way. The strength of the scrum is a massively significant improvement. The breakdown is smart and on firmer grounds than they have been getting of late, they have a fast-tempo attacking game to worry any side.
Munster is not the Munster of old. Throughout the pool stages they have prevaricated between styles. The forwards are a decent scrum but not one to scare Harlequins and they are not the breakdown force of old. Simon Zebo is enjoying himself on the wing but a wide game is not the way for them to shock the English champions.
People will not dismiss them because of their name and the region's great European traditions but this team only bares resemblance to the great Munster sides in name. A quarter-final berth is quite an achievement in itself for this team that has played a pool in a state of transition. Harlequins could not have a better shot at the semis.
Exeter's gutsy effort against Leinster, holding them to four tries when the now deposed champions needed a bucketful has probably robbed the draw of the quarter-final that most neutrals would have liked; and not because of those tedious recollections of four years ago but because this could have been one hell of a match.
Harlequins would not have shed too many tears at Munster's gleeful triumph over their great rivals but the draw for the semi-finals was not kind to them. Clermont (if they don't let my predicting down) in France but at least not in the Auvergne. They remain the team I expect to win this tournament but that's for the future, this is a decent set of quarter-finals with the Saracens v Ulster and Toulon v Leicester game the picks for tightness, Clermont for colour and Harlequins for a banker home win... that's done it!!!!
Wasps versus Leinster is a juicy Amlin game in a tournament that also sees Toulouse dropping down a tier, Bath, Gloucester, Stade Francais...
This is going to take some winning...
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Stuart, is this situation with Saracens and the salary cap becoming ridiculous now? It was odd how they acquired Ashton last year for a whopping fee without having anyone else leave. How do they go ahead and find the money for Johnson and Vunipola, while signing up 10 players on new deals at what will be vastly improved rates? Nicholas Cole
STUART REPLIES: Nicholas. The Saracens squad for next season does look increasingly strong given the salary cap. How they budget their balance? That I don't know. I can speculate but my speculations have no basis in fact, so, like you I will speculate and wonder if the Premiership is asking the relevant questions.
Hi Stuart, what are your thoughts on the summer whinge regarding Rabo sides having an unnecessary advantage in the Heineken Cup. Surely the proof is in the pudding and the results have shown this not to be actually true? Or am I being far too simplistic? Many thanks Gail Francois
STUART REPLIES: Gail, I wrote on this subject in my Sunday Times column this season. Money is important but playing style even more so. Hence Toulouse, who have stopped playing with their ambition of old are gone while Clermont have upped their ambitions, Harlequins are also attractive to see and even Saracens have a European game that is sharper than their domestic version. English and French clubs did not lose out for years primarily because of Rabo advantages (it was a factor) and they are not going well this time simply because of money (although that too, is a factor).
Stuart, do you think that it is time that Guy Noves steps down at Toulouse? With all their money they still have not got a decent halfback pairing which cost them a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. He also seems to have too much say on the field with none of the players looking capable of making a decent decision. Adam Williams
STUART REPLIES: Adam. In theory yes, I reckon Noves has presided over a gradual slump in the quality of Toulouse, masked by the power of the pack and a reputation that counts for as much in subduing Top 14 opponents as their actual game. On the flip side this club's greatness is partially based on its sense of community and looking after its own; Noves might be ready for a room upstairs but don't ignore the importance of loyalty and trust. I am not going to call for anyone's head but maybe Toulouse need to think pretty hard with Clermont and Toulon on the move.