Expect thrills, spills and classic contests

BIG games, big clashes and a big prize at the end of it all — the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals look set to provide some classic contests right out of the top drawer of European action.

Everywhere you look there is something to catch the eye or to make the mouth water.

For starters, tonight’s London derby between Harlequins and Wasps which could provide one team with a Heineken Cup lifeline. There’s also the clash of two former Heineken Cup giants in Brive and Munster, and a return to Paris for former Stade Francais coach, Fabien Galthie, with his high-flying Montpellier side. The eight teams may have had contrasting fortunes coming into the quarter-finals, but they will all have integrated their international players back into their sides and will be ready for some massive cup ties.

For some teams it will be the ‘Last Chance’ saloon as they try to find a way to qualify for the Heineken Cup next season. Both Harlequins and London Wasps are on the fringes of the play-offs in the Aviva Premiership, while Stade Francais are nine points short of the knock-out places in the Top 14 and neither Brive nor La Rochelle can make the top six.

So the incentive is there for these teams not only to strive to win a major European trophy, but also to push for a Heineken Cup ticket. Montpellier’s remarkable season goes from strength to strength and their recent 29-23 home win over Stade in a quarter-final dress-rehearsal will have lifted their spirits ahead of their trip to Stade Charlety in Paris.

With skipper Fulgence Ouedraogo now registered for the tournament they should be even stronger than when they emerged from this season’s toughest Amlin Challenge Cup Pool.

One man who will be plotting an upset on the road will be Galthie, who knows all there is to know about the Stade psyche having coached them to finals in both the Heineken Cup and Top 14.

But how do you bet against a team that contains such quality players as Tom Palmer, James Haskell and the outstanding Sergio Parisse? On paper at least, Stade have a wonderful, wonderful side with a coach, Michael Cheika, who has already guided Leinster to a memorable Heineken Cup triumph.

Montpellier won’t have Francois Trinh-Duc to steer their ship in Paris, so I think Stade’s star quality will come to the fore and see them through a tight game.

The other all-French game was last night’s visit of ASM Clermont Auvergne to La Rochelle for what should have proved the most straightforward game to call.

Brive are one place and one point above La Rochelle in the Top 14, but their European pedigree, and recent form, suggests mighty Munster can expect a warm reception when they travel to the Stade Municipal. I experienced Brive at their best in the Heineken Cup back in 1998 when they came to Loftus Road and beat Wasps in the quarter-finals.

They had won the Heineken Cup in 1997 and were on their way to a second final in those heady days. They aren’t back at that level yet, but their recent 50-6 demolition job against Bourgoin showed they are a potent force at home.

Munster found themselves squeezed out of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1998 after finishing second in the ‘Pool of Death’. Cue a major backlash from the Irish side and a major push for another European title to add to their two Heineken titles.

They have travelled all over France in the past and won in Pool and knock-out games, so going to Brive shouldn’t intimidate them. But they will need to ride out the expected early storm if they are to pick up a home semi-final.

If they do win then they will face either Harlequins or Wasps at Thomond Park. That will be a huge challenge for whichever team wins the London derby.

There is little doubt Harlequins will start as favourites after their runaway home win over Gloucester last weekend. Wasps are definitely going through a bit of a dip and are having a disappointing season.

But they are a better team than recent results would suggest and when I saw these two teams play about six weeks ago there was little to choose between them.

This game will be all about who wins the two big head-to-head battles.

The Amlin Opta Index, which analyses the performances of players in both the Amlin Challenge Cup and the Heineken Cup, shows that Dave Walder and Joe Worsley are key to Wasps success. Worsley’s defensive strengths are vital and the statistics show he successfully completed 90 tackles in the Pool stages and missed only two.

His battle with the outstanding Chris Robshaw in the Quins back row will be crucial. So, too, will Walder’s kicking duel with Nick Evans.

- Lawrence Dallaglio is an ambassador for Amlin Rugby

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