Ulster Rugby homing in to secure Heineken Cup glory
What a weekend feast of rugby awaits. Eight clubs, four matches, one ultimate objective — lift the Heineken Cup and claim the crown as Kings of Europe.
That hope is what will be at stake when Ulster — top seeds, remember — line up opposite Saracens, current Aviva Premiership leaders and the side who put paid to their Heineken Cup hopes at this stage last season.
On that occasion, however, Ulster faced Sarries at Twickenham. This time it's very different; this time it is in Belfast and with the vast majority of the 18,000 who will fill the all-new Ravenhill for the first time rooting unreservedly for the home side, that gives Ulster a significant advantage.
This has nothing to do with the luck of the draw, of course; Ulster are playing at home only because they earned the right to do so by virtue of having won all six pool-stage matches. As the only club to have done that this season, Mark Anscombe's men graduated with honours.
They say that fortune favours the brave and certainly the hefty weight of evidence suggests that it favours home quarter-finalists, too. Over the years, three quarters of Heineken Cup quarter-final winners have been home sides on the day.
But there is another statistic, too. Remarkably, no side which has come through the pool stages with a 100 per cent played six, won six record has ever gone on to lift the trophy that same season.
Wasps (1997-98), Bath (2001-02), Leinster (2003-04 and 2004-05), Scarlets and Biarritz Olympique (both 2006-07), Cardiff Blues (2008-09), Northampton Saints (2010-11), Munster (2011-12), Harlequins and ASM Clermont Auvergne (both 2012-13) swept all before them in pool stages but were unable to finish the job by going on to lift the trophy.
Ulster's success in 1998-99 underlines the point perfectly, for it is an often-overlooked fact that Harry Williams' side won only four of their six matches en route to becoming the first Irish winners of European club rugby's most prestigious prize. It mattered less that they drew and lost one of their other two half-dozen Pool 3 matches than that they were victorious in their quarter-final, semi-final and final pairings.
The much anticipated Ulster v Saracens re-match is the third of the three ties being played on Saturday.
First up (1.30pm) is Munster v Toulouse at Thomond Park, wherein 26,000 — some 3,000 of them French — will assemble to watch two past-masters and old adversaries engage in battle. There is history attached to this fixture — lots of it.
Munster were winners in 2006 and 2008, the latter being the year in which they beat Toulouse 16-13 in a nail-chewing thriller of a final at the Millennium Stadium.
Eight years earlier, Munster had beaten the French giants 31-25 in an even better semi-final at Stade Chanban Delmas.
But in 2003, watched by a crowd of 36,500, Toulouse avenged that by beating Munster 13-12 in the semi-final at Le Stadium en route to seeing off Perpignan in an all-French final played at Lansdowne Road.
All told Toulouse have been champions four times — 1996, 2003, 2005 and 2010 — but despite that record and their participation in each of the previous 18 seasons of Heineken Cup rugby, this will be their first visit to Munster's Limerick citadel.
Only once have Munster lost a home quarter-final, of which there have been seven — and shame on you if you've forgotten who delivered the Reds' knock-out blow on Easter Sunday 2012!
Saturday afternoon's second pairing is Clermont v Leicester Tigers at the Stade Marcel-Michelin, where the hosts are unbeaten in 74 games in all competitions. Some record.
Adding even more kick to the French-English cocktail is the fact that Richard Cockerill, the guests' director of rugby, played five Heineken Cup games for Clermont in 2002/03.
Ulster v Saracens (6.30pm) is the last of Saturday's contests, with Sunday seeing the clash of the past two seasons' winners — Toulon, the reigning champions, versus Leinster, who also lifted last year's Amlin Challenge Cup.
They meet at Stade Felix Mayol where one of two of the game's greatest players and finest ambassadors —Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson and Leinster's Brian O’Driscoll — will bow out of the Heineken Cup for the last time.
What a weekend. Bring it on.