Eight elite clubs with 16 European titles among them are counting down to what promises an unforgettable weekend of worldclass rugby.
The knockout stage gets underway on Saturday with the heavyweight clash of Munster and Toulouse which marks the first visit of the French four-time champions to Thomond Park. Munster, who will be smarting following their 22-18 defeat by Leinster last weekend, topped Pool Six and qualified as fourth seeds.
The champions from 2006 and 2008 are appearing in a 15th European Cup quarterfinals, and a capacity crowd is set to witness a mouthwatering confrontation between two of the great European clubs.
Next up is the much anticipated meeting of Clermont Auvergne and Leicester Tigers at the Stade Marcel-Michelin cauldron where Clermont, who lost 26-24 to Brive on the road last weekend, hold an astonishing 74-game unbeaten run in all competitions. Tigers Director of Rugby, Richard Cockerill, will be returning to the French club for whom he played five European Cup games during the 2002/03 season while the home side, who qualified second, will be looking to atone for the disappointment of last season when they were edged out in the final by Toulon.
Saturday’s series of matches concludes with a repeat of last year’s quarterfinals between Ulster and Saracens.
The current Premiership leaders Saracens – now seven points clear following their 32-20 win over London Wasps – will be determined to register a similar result to 2013 when they defeated Ulster at Twickenham, however, the Irish province and their passionate supporters will have other ideas with the game staged on this occasion at the revamped Ravenhilll Stadium.
Ulster Captain, Former Springbok lock Johan Muller, sees this weekends match a massively important to Ulster’s growth. “We are just at the starting line, this is not a short term project it is more like 10 or 20 year project and for me as an individual to be a part of the building phase is something really special and I hope it is not my last European Cup game,” he said.
“At home in a European Cup quarter final for the first time in 15 years, it doesn’t get any bigger than that!”
No club in the history of the European Cup which was won all six of its pool matches has gone on to lift the trophy in the same season. The 100 per cent pool record has been achieved 13 times but those six-out-of-six clubs have never tasted success in the same year and this time it will be Ulster trying their luck. The quarterfinals weekend will be wrapped up in style with reigning European Cup champions, Toulon – 32-28 winners over Toulouse last weekend – taking on reigning Challenge Cup champions, Leinster, at the atmospheric Stade Felix Mayol on Sunday.
Leinster will be buoyed by their victory over rivals, Munster, at the Stadium, and the first meeting of the clubs will feature two greats of the game with either Jonny Wilkinson or Brian O’Driscoll signing off on their European careers at the final whistle.
We take a look at all of the matches:
Saturday, April 5
Munster v Toulouse
These two clubs have near identical European Cup records with Toulouse winning 97 of 137 and Munster 96 of 136. Each side have two wins each so far in their four head-to-heads with the most recent meeting being Munster’s 16-13 win in the 2008 European Cup final. This will be the first time that Toulouse have played at Thomond Park but they will be buoyed by the fact that they have conceded fewer turnovers and won more than any other club in the pool stage.
Toulouse’s strength lies in their ability to beat defenders, collectively having beat more defenders than any other club in the pool stage. Munster have lost just one of their last 24 home games in this competition. That defeat came in the 2012 quarterfinal against Ulster Rugby (16-22).
Clermont v Leicester Tigers
Five of the previous six meetings (all pool stage) between the clubs in the European Cup have been won by the home side with Leicester’s win at Marcel-Michelin in 2006 the exception.
Leicester are also one of the most deadly teams on opposition line outs having stolen a total of 21 lineouts in the pool stage, more than any other side, with Graham Kitchener accounting for six of these steals.
Clermont have had more possession than any other club and more carries and metres during the pool stage with Sitiveni Sivivatu, who was one of just two players to make 500+ metres in the pool stages, Sivivatu also made a competition-high 14 clean breaks in the pool stage. Clermont have won their last 74 games at Stade Marcel-Michelin in all competitions.
Ulster v Saracens
Saracens were the top points scorers from the pool stage, notching up 217 in their six games, they also made more clean breaks than any other side, averaging almost 10 per game with Chris Ashton the competitions top try scorer so far during, crossing the whitewash seven times. The wing also provided three try assists.
Darren Cave of Ulster had four try assists in the pool stage, a joint-high figure along with Munster Rugby’s Conor Murray while Kelly Brown, who if selected for Saturday will be making his 50th European Cup appearance, completed the most tackles without missing one in the pool stage. Ulster have conceded just four tries in the pool stage, the joint-fewest along with Toulouse.
This is the sixth meeting between the two clubs. Last season they also met in the quarterfinals with Saracens taking the honours 27-16 at Twickenham Stadium. Saracens have won four of the previous five meetings but three of those wins have come at home. Ulster have won 17 of their last 18 home games in the European Cup, the only defeat coming against Northampton Saints in the pool stage last season.
Sunday, April 6
Toulon v Leinster
Toulon have the best disciplinary record from the pool stages conceding fewer penalties and free-kicks than any club. They also boast the top points scorer in Jonny Wilkinson who ended the pool stages with 73 points. He kicked seven conversions and 17 penalties as well as crossing for a try and slotting a drop-goal.
These two clubs have never met before in the European Cup and Toulon have only met Irish opposition twice before. Leinster scored five tries from turnovers in the pool stage, a figure only matched by Northampton Saints. The Irish team are also effective at maintain phase play who have scored six tries from seven or more phases of play
Toulon are yet to lose at home in the European Cup, winning all 10 of their games to date, and averaging 38 points per game. On the last four occasions that Leinster have reached the quarter-finals they have gone on to make the semi-finals, winning the tournament in 2009, 2011 and 2012.