Will Greenwood and Matt Perry look at the contenders for the Heineken Cup
Last Updated: 17/01/14 12:01pm
Heading into the final round of group games, there are only two quarter-final places up for grabs but it is the seedings that will come under the spotlight in the final round.
Ulster currently have top spot but will have to win at Welford Rd on Saturday night to win Pool 5 and stay as the No.1 seeds. However, it is the Touloun, Clermont and Toulouse who are looking best placed to finish in the top four and get a home quarter-final. Defending champions Toulon have already won their pool but a win against Glasgow will secure them that home game.
"I feel Clermont's squad and their ability to play in a variety of different ways puts them just slightly in a different league to some of the French sides."
Toulouse and Clermont are also already in the play-offs but will want to finish the weekend with a win to secure one of the top four seeds. Munster have also qualified, while Leinster will need just one match point against the Ospreys to make the quarters. Leicester know what they have to do against Ulster and Saracens will also make it through if they beat Connacht - however if Connacht manage to win then it opens the door for them, Northampton, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Harlequins to make the last eight.
There is still a lot of rugby to be played before the new champions of Europe are crowned in Cardiff in May but Matt Perry says it's hard to look past the French superpowers.
"They are almost playing a different brand of rugby," said the former Bath star.
"The likes of Clermont, Toulouse and Toulon have just massive packs but the difference for me is how they play in transition. They don't let the ball stay on the ground too long. Traditionally you would expect a No.9 to get the ball out to his 10. The likes of Clermont and Toulouse, well the first man there lifts it -they try and keep the ball off the ground and with the angles they are running they can play within five metres and then spread it wide if they need to. They are always going forward - always direct in their fashion of play."
Toulon are defending champions and their second half display against Cardiff certainly sent out a warning to the rest of Europe, however Will Greenwood fancies another team to wrestle the trophy away from them.
"I feel Clermont's squad and their ability to play in a variety of different ways puts them just slightly in a different league to some of the French sides," explained Greenwood.
"Alain Rolland reffed last year's final very well but I still believe if Nigel Owens reffed it then the attacking side would have had the cards stacked in their favour as he would have interpreted it differently.
"Clermont still have it all to do; they are traditionally French to a degree -they have big runners, winger Nalaga is an extra backrow forward and they execute what Matt was talking about so well. Pick and drive forward; they look to get it away from the breakdown and look to offload. They ask such good questions, they have that power upfront and then they go wide where they have the precision and the pace to put the opposition in two minds. They have such good decoys that it is difficult to know the right decision."
Ghosts of the past
The Irish provinces may have a thing or two to say about the French favourites as Ulster, Leinster and Munster are all capable of winning this tournament. The Munster class of 2014 look to have finally stepped out of the shadow that teams of the past have cast over them and Matt Perry believes that they are genuine contenders.
"I think they are contenders, they have got a lot of experience in this competition and they know how to win, " Perry added.
"What they do very well in Ireland - and this goes for Ulster and Leinster too - is that they look after their players extremely well. They time their performances relative to the Heineken Cup. Munster have struggled a bit in transition in terms of losing Ronan O'Gara and some of the solidity and culture in Munster to take them to the next level - they probably need to get that back."
Will Greenwood agrees: "I love this new Munster backrow with Tommy O'Donnell at 7, James Coughlan at 8 and Peter O'Mahony at 6. Now when Alan Quinlan is in the studio they are not wishing that he was back out there. They have a backrow who can really compete and they've got some great dog.
"They also have a chap at 10 who perhaps can take over O'Gara's role - I have really enjoyed Ian Keatley's kicking performance. They are still learning a little bit about each other and how to play but they have that Munster belief and they have an outstanding pack. Suddenly they are finding that they are not wishing that some of the old names were back."
Battle of Pool 5
One of the biggest games of the weekend will be at Welford Rd where Leicester and Ulster will battle it out for top spot in pool 5 - both have already qualified but there's a crucial home quarter-final at stake, and Greenwood cannot wait for Saturday night.
"This has been my favourite pool," added Greenwood. "Why? Because in the opening night of round one Leicester were behind 22-16 and they won a penalty on the half way line. We all expected a big finish but they booted it off sideways. They did not want to risk losing the losing bonus point they had and they backed themselves that they would drag Ulster back to their place, turn them over and go through as winners.
"This pool has ebbed and flowed, Ulster grabbed the initiative early when they went away to Montpellier and won and yet Leicester have been that chewing gum on the bottom of Ulster's shoe that they just cannot get off! Here we are all ready for one of the great tactical pools.
"Leicester have to stop John Afoa rampaging upfront though and Ulster have got plenty of power in the second row too. I love flanker Chris Henry - his battle with Julian Salvi on the floor is going to be superb. Then you have the battle between the two hookers - Tom Youngs v Rory Best. Ulster fullback Jared Payne plays in one of my favourite styles - he is a slow-quick bloke. I love the slow-quick blokes!"
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