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Irish provinces aim to make history


Ireland and Munster captain Paul O'Connell, pictured, will aim to lead his side into the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup

Ireland and Munster captain Paul O'Connell, pictured, will aim to lead his side into the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup

Ireland and Munster captain Paul O'Connell, pictured, will aim to lead his side into the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup

Ireland could close in this weekend on becoming the most successful country in Heineken Cup history.

A season that has seen the Ireland national team go within touching distance of beating world champions New Zealand and then land a first RBS 6 Nations title since 2009, might now see three Heineken Cup semi-finalists delivered.

And that would considerably enhance prospects of an all-Irish final in Cardiff next month, meaning the tournament in its current format will end after 19 years with Ireland as the dominant nation.

Currently, Ireland, France and England each boast six European titles since the competition began in 1995.

But the current Irish quarter-final trio of Munster, Ulster and Leinster appear well-placed to lead a charge for silverware before European club rugby's blue riband event is succeeded by the Rugby Champions Cup next term.

Granted, it will not be easy. Four-time European champions Toulouse stand in Munster's way at Thomond Park on Saturday, Ulster host current Aviva Premiership leaders Saracens and Leinster visit Heineken Cup holders Toulon on Sunday.

Munster and Ulster, though, both have home advantage - historically crucial at this stage of the tournament - while Leinster will not be remotely daunted by their task in Toulon.

Brian O'Driscoll and company have collected three of the last five Heineken Cup crowns, and few teams in Europe can live with them when they click.

Munster, European champions in 2006 and 2008, will equal Toulouse's record of 97 Heineken Cup tournament wins if they beat the French heavyweights at this weekend, and home skipper Paul O'Connell said: "It will be a massive occasion.

"It's great to be at home, but they are an incredible team with incredible players and incredible talent. It's a massive uphill task for us.

"They (Toulouse) have class across the park, and on the really big days I think they are probably one of the best, if not the best, teams in the competition.

"There are certain teams you can analyse and you can plan to try and stop what they are going to do.

"But with Toulouse, the way they play and the style of rugby they have makes it very hard to predict what they are going to do and plan for that.

"They have got so many flair players who can play off the cuff. They play an incredible off-loading game, and, as the weather gets drier and pitches get harder, that will suit them."

Ulster were emphatically beaten by Saracens at Twickenham in last season's quarter-finals, and the Irish province's revenge mission will be witnessed by a record 18,000 crowd at a redeveloped Ravenhill. Ulster are also the competition's sole remaining unbeaten team this term.

"Saracens totally outplayed us last year. They are a great side and they don't mind going away from home and getting results," Ulster skipper Johann Muller said.

"We haven't achieved anything yet. We finished top of our pool and top of the log, but a lot of great teams in the history of this tournament have been in exactly the same situation as we are in now and they've slipped up in the quarter or semi-finals.

"There is a huge amount of work left for us if we want to achieve something great."

Ulster have already claimed notable triumphs through winning in Leicester and Montpellier during the pool stages, and Muller added: "I couldn't believe the amount of Ulster supporters who were in the stands when we went around the field after the game at Leicester.

"Welford Road is a great place, with a great crowd and a really special atmosphere. For us as players, that's why we play this game.

"You want to play at a great stadium, against a great team with unbelievable support. That really gets the juices flowing. To get that victory was obviously special.

"It is something that we are getting used to now. Whether it's at Ravenhill or away from home, the Ulster supporters are outstanding and they bring a great buzz to every single game."

Like Ulster and Munster, conquerors of Montpellier and Perpignan, respectively, Leinster have also won in France this season, claiming a pool stage victory over Castres.

"You've got to bring a physical edge," Leinster flanker Shane Jennings said, ahead of the Toulon trip.

"There are a lot of things involved in it, but it is the process that you have to make sure you are getting right if you want to compete against these boys. It's about how you can be controlled in the game, to control those emotions."