Heineken Cup contenders
Sky Sports rugby union writer Tony Curtis look at the eight contenders left in the hunt for HEC glory
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: January 21, 2013 5:22am
Following the completion of the Heineken Cup pool stages, Sky Sports looks at the eight contenders chasing glory in May.
The Premiership champions have enjoyed a stellar start to this season's Heineken Cup. Quins won all six of their pool matches, scoring a staggering 28 tries along the way - although it can be argued that with Zebre, Connacht and Biarritz they had a more favourable draw than their rivals. The top seeds have clearly learned from their early elimination last season, though, with the ability to adapt their game plan along they way - as highlighted in their gutsy win in awful conditions in Biarritz. With Nick Evans pulling the strings and Danny Care a livewire menace, few sides will fancy facing Quins - although a potential away semi-final in France will seriously test their chances.
Like Harlequins, the Top 14 side have negotiated their way through the pool stages unbeaten - which has been no mean feat considering the opposition they have faced. Crucially Clermont toppled defending champions Leinster twice - going some way to avenge their semi-final defeat to the Irishmen last season. Morgan Parra has been in superb form with the boot, leading the scoring with 90 points, while powerful duo Napolioni Nalaga and Wesley Fofana have been scoring tries for fun. They face an all-French tie in the last-eight against Montpellier - while Harlequins or Munster await in the semi-finals.
Although the big-spending Frenchmen saw their unbeaten record come to an end against an emotionally-charged Montpellier side in the final pool game, Toulon had already booked their passage into the last-eight by then. With convincing wins over Cardiff Blues, Sale Sharks and Montpellier earlier in the pool, Toulon could afford to take it easy at Stade Yves du Manoir. With a wealth of talent assembled from around the globe - Wilkinson, Hayman, Giteau, Botha et al - Toulon have the class, experience and potential to beat anyone on their day. Home advantage against Leicester will suit them in the last-eight, however there is the daunting prospect of the in-form Saracens or Ulster in the semis.
Heineken Cup knockout draws
Quarter-finals: Harlequins v Munster, Clermont v Montpellier, Toulon v Leicester, Saracens v Ulster.
Semi-finals: Saracens/Ulster v Toulon/Leicester, Clermont/Montpellier v Harlequins/Munster.
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Any doubts over Saracens' chances of a successful challenge should have been erased by a stunning victory over Racing Metro in Nantes. Having been on the verge of a potential exit, Saracens have gone on to claim the pool - and their never-say-die attitude will make them a dangerous side to face. Last season's tame quarter-final loss to Clermont hurt them and they will be determined to avoid a repeat. And with the sure-footed Owen Farrell and the finishing prowess of Chris Ashton, they have the ability to punish sides. Ulster will be another step up in the quarter-finals, though, while Toulon or Leicester in the last-four promises to be an epic encounter.
Last season's finalists enjoyed a sensational start to the season before Northampton threatened to derail their challenge. However, even though a bonus-point win over Glasgow guaranteed their place in the quarter-finals going into the final pool fixture, Mark Anscombe's men underlined their potential with an historic win in Castres. Injuries have not been kind to the Ulstermen - Stephen Ferris and Johann Muller are among those missing - but they have tremendous depth to their squad now and they will have learned from the heavy loss to Leinster at Twickenham in 2012. Their failure to pick up enough bonus points in the pool means they will have to travel to Saracens in the last-eight - the good news is that if they win then they could have home advantage in the semi-final, the bad news is that it will be against either Toulon or Leicester
A dogged victory over Toulouse at a snow-covered Welford Road saw the Tigers claim their place in the last eight at the expense of their French rivals. Although on paper it might look like Leicester have stumbled through the pool stages, to top a pool including Europe's top side - Toulouse have won four titles and 92 of their 131 Heineken Cup games - the RaboDirect PRO12 champions in the Ospreys and Treviso, a side that is improving year-on-year, is no mean feat. They only lost to Toulouse in France, while they were held to a draw in Swansea by the Ospreys. Their forwards - particularly the lineout general of Geoff Parling - remain key to the hopes, while they will need Toby Flood to keep chipping away at the scoreboard. If they are to reach the final they will have to do it the hard way, with trips Toulon and then Saracens or Ulster now on the cards.
The Top 14 side clinched their place in the quarter-finals courtesy of one of the two best runners-up spots - and, in truth, they weren't that far from claiming top spot in Pool Six. A rousing victory in the final match over pool winners Toulon will have thrown down a marker to their challengers. With Mamuka Gorgodze leading from the front and Francois Trinh-Duc pulling the strings, Montpellier could well be the dark horses. They will fancy their chances in the all-Top 14 quarter-final at Clermont, with home advantage against Munster or Harlequins should they advance.
The former champions gatecrashed the quarter-finals courtesy of a dramatic final-day of action. Their bonus-point win over Racing Metro meant they claimed the final 'best runners-up spot' at the expense of their old foes Leinster. Defeats to Racing and Saracens showed they are vulnerable away from fortress Thomond Park, but write them off at your peril. In the likes of Ronan O'Gara, Simon Zebo, Doug Howlett and Donnacha Ryan they have some class performers. They will need all their star names to be on form if they are to now beat Quins at the Stoop, while either Clermont or Montpellier in the semis would pose a number of problems.