At the start of the Heineken Cup, I took part in a discussion about the relative merits and chances of the respective European participants. Looking at the semi-final line-up, it is interesting how things have worked out.
I must admit that nobody really mentioned Leinster. They had come into the tournament undercooked and had been hampered by international players being rested and filtered back into Magners League action.
In a group including Saracens, Racing Metro and Clermont, the boys in blue were not expected to persevere, and most opined that Clermont would win the Pool and had a great chance of winning the tournament. The fact that those aforementioned teams currently lie second in the Premiership and second and third in the Top 14 respectively proves that this group, Pool Two, was the Group of Death. Leinster didn’t just qualify, they smashed their way out of the Group, with the second highest number of qualification points and a home quarter-final place.
Leinster, particularly in Dublin, have been an awesome force. The performance of the tournament so far was their home demolition of Clermont. Put that together with the defeat of Leicester Tigers in the quarter-finals and the fact that they have a settled side with nine starting Irish international players, and you can understand why this team really believes it can lift the European title for the second time in three years.
If there is one side with enough power and class to beat Leinster, it is Toulouse, but Leinster, through rugby rather than reputation, should come through another massive test on Saturday and are my new favourites for the title.
When I say ‘new’, I mean that I hadn’t backed them at the start. Toulouse featured most prominently on the pundits’ lists for potential winners, Clermont got a fair mention, but I went for an outside bet — Northampton Saints. My reasoning was that they had a relatively straightforward group with Cardiff Blues their biggest rivals and an excellent chance of a home quarter-final.
Clearly, I would have been delighted had Ulster triumphed in Milton Keynes, but statistics show that home advantage in the knockout stages counts for a lot.
Even making it through to the semis, I feel, would justify taking a different position to the rest, but the Saints might just keep marching on to the final.
Perpignan are an enigmatic side, as French as you can get in temperament. Physical in the extreme with a monster front row, their instinct is still to run with the ball.
Their form slightly sums up their season. To qualify for the semi-finals, Perpignan overcame the mighty Toulon who are already planning for French and European domination next season, but lost 43-12 against the same team in the Top 14 last weekend.
Of all the semi-finalists, Perpignan is the only side not to have won the title, and you wonder what effect that might have on their self-belief.
A finishing position of ninth in their domestic league means that the Catalans did not qualify for the Top 14 play-offs. This represents a disastrous and un
acceptable result for a club with the quality, ambition and expectation of a club that big. The Heineken Cup is now all they are left with — the question is whether this will spur them on to an inspired performance or will their indifferent away form drag them down?
Interestingly, when pressed on the subject, Sir Ian McGeechan picked Perpignan as his potential winners of the competition. As a former Northampton coach, there are few who know more about rugby than Geech. If he is impressed, then so should we be. Stadium MK will be rocking once again on Sunday afternoon.
With the final being played at the Millennium Stadium, the best result for the organisers would be a fixture that would have some domestic interest i.e. a situation that did not see two French sides make it through. For this to happen, either Leinster or Northampton have to use their home advantages to the maximum. In fact, I have a feeling that both might prevail.
Forward power, huge collisions, and drama to the last have been the hallmarks of the knockout stages so far. I expect nothing less from the semi-finals.