A titanic clash
Saracens and Ulster may have the ability and the attacking play to go all the way in the Heineken Cup, but who will triumph in their quarter-final clash on Saturday?
Last Updated: 05/04/13 3:25pm
Saracens may be in poll position in the Premiership at the moment but these ambitious sides have their eyes set on European domination too. They have never gone past the semi-finals in the Heineken Cup or, in fact, the Amlin Cup but this Saturday they will be looking to take a step closer to that ambition.
Up against last year's finalists Ulster, Sarries know that a victory would see them return to Twickenham for a semi-final. Ulster have incentives of their own - a final in their own backyard would be the perfect place to go one step further than they did last year!
Miles Harrison casts his eye over their form and wonders who may have the edge on Saturday.
What are the benefits of playing this game at Twickenham, Miles? Would Sarries have been better off welcoming Ulster to Allianz Park?
MILES REPLIES: Allianz Park is not big enough at the moment to accommodate a quarter-final by the rules of the competition. Temporary stands were discussed but, talking to Mark McCall this week, Saracens feel that Twickenham is a good option in that many of their players feel comfortable there, having had international experiences on the ground and also because Saracens, as a club, have some fond memories of what they have achieved there. However, there is an element of 'letting Ulster in' and the ticket sales in Ulster have been strong for this encounter. There is no doubt that this will give a much more neutral feel than would have been the case at Allianz Park but Saracens simply had no choice but to take that risk. And, let's face it, Sarries have gone well on the road throughout this nomadic campaign of theirs - so I honestly don't think it is a massive factor.
McCall's team are in fine form at the moment and are top of the Premiership table. They are a pretty close-knit team too - we have heard all about them bringing in wolves to inspire the wolf-pack etc. What do you make of this unity?
MILES REPLIES: Yes, the wolf concept was Paul Gustard's idea and I rather enjoyed listening to him speak about it this week and other matters too. It is clear why England have gone for his talents to help out with the tour to Argentina this summer when Andy Farrell is away with the Lions. As for the wolf pack, it is certainly a different idea and it seems to work for Sarries. As well as inviting wolves to team meetings, the club have a 'wolf-board' to indicate who is really putting it in when it comes to defence and that is the major point here. Saracens only deal in the actual evidence in order to find out the best way of achieving their goals and, if wolves help in the adding up, then so be it!
Ulster will be no pushover, though, will they and they are full of confidence themselves - their win over Leinster last Saturday could not have come at a better time, could it?
MILES REPLIES: You are right, that win in Dublin, their first against Leinster there in 14 years, is a massive boost for Ulster. But, as Mark Anscombe said, it was not so much the win as the performance that will have given Ulster renewed confidence. After such a magnificent start to the season, Ulster had seen things tail away; a lot of this was down to injury and international calls, of course, but they needed that shot in the arm last week. And, the fact that they came from behind to win the match would have been very pleasing indeed. Anyway, before last week, I was not one of those who subscribed to the view that Ulster's form made Saracens hot favourites for this match. Ulster have too many good players - too much Heineken Cup experience now having reached the Final last season - not to have always been a major player in this game. But, on the back of that thrilling win over Leinster and that amazing defence at the end, they are certainly very much in this. Mark McCall's pre-match call of this being 50/50 seems about spot on to me. I am pretty convinced that this is going to a memorable quarter-final - and all on the stage where Saracens won their first Premiership title and Ulster bowed out of last season's European Cup competition. It is a match full of emotion, involving two teams who have a genuine chance of going all the way, especially knowing that the semi-final will be played on home turf. In Ulster's case, it would be the Final as well. Talk about incentives...
Saturday's other semi-final is Clermont v Montpellier - how do you see this one going, Miles?
MILES REPLIES: Well, I'm not so sure on a 50/50 call here. Montpellier are a good and terrifically-committed side as we saw in their final Pool match against Toulon. But, Clermont Auvergne simply do not lose at home. If they do, it will be one of the biggest quarter-final shocks that this competition has ever seen, regardless of the derby element. However, I don't see it. Fine occasion - yes and home win - yes.