Bench could decide dogfight at Thomond

Four quarter-finals, each with fascinating sub-plots. Our rugby analyst looks for the tell-tales indicators.

Bench could decide dogfight at Thomond

Munster v Toulouse

The fact that Toulouse have only won one of their 12 away games in the French championship this season — and that against the league’s basement side, Biarritz — offers Munster the chance to get into their heads.

Munster are mentally stronger and that offers a good starting point. Despite the incredible talent they possess, Toulouse are short on leadership.

When the pressure comes on in the heat of battle away from the comforts of the Stade Ernest-Wallon, few within their ranks grasp the nettle and lead the charge. In this respect, as with the French national side in the Six Nations, the loss of their captain Thierry Dusautoir is seismic.

Without him, the pressure falls on Louis Picamoles. He is an outstanding player and inspirational ball carrier. For Munster to win, they simply have to negate the impact of the back row colossus just like they did to Sebastian Chabal in Sale colours a few years ago.

Picamoles is even more powerful and explosive than Chabal. His incredible upper body strength, allied to amazing leg power, enables him to drive through two or three tacklers and still manage to offload. Munster have to limit his opportunities with ball in hand.

This Toulouse side are the ultimate French enigma. In the Top 14 this season, they top the charts in relation to offloads, defenders beaten and most carries. Yet they have only won 11 of their 23 league games. As a consequence they are in danger of missing the semi-finals for the first time since 1995.

It is imperative therefore that Munster apply so much pressure that the visitors have no space to operate. The thing with Toulouse is that if you offer them the soft inside shoulder they will swat you away and power through. However if you smash them in the tackle and hold them down, they will think twice about coming back for more. That is why Munster have to impose themselves to such a degree at the breakdown, the set piece and in defence from the outset that Toulouse, as so often happens them on the road, accept their fate.

Munster’s kicking game will also have to be far more accurate than it was against Leinster last weekend as this Toulouse backline thrives on broken field opportunities. Their midfield and outside backs are all incredibly powerful specimens who will cut you open if offered even the slightest gap. Therefore if Munster are kicking long to touch, they need to bury the ball into the stand. Otherwise Toulouse will take quick throws and counterattack immediately.

To beat Toulouse, you have to suffocate them. Given Munster’s traditional relish for a dogfight, that shouldn’t be a problem. My big worry however is that Toulouse have a far more potent bench.

If it’s still tight entering into the last quarter that could yet be decisive.

Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers

For the second season in a row Leicester face top quality French opposition on the road at this stage of the tournament. Their domestic season has been badly hit by injury but the timely return of a number of key performers has seen much improved displays of late.

Key to that is the return of Manu Tuilagi. When Ulster dominated the Tigers at Welford Road in their final pool game in January, the hosts were devoid of any threat in attack.

With Tuilagi and Fijian powerhouse Vereniki Goneva now rectifying that issue, Leicester have an outside chance.

To win at the Stade Marcel Michelin, where Clermont’s unbeaten record has now stretched to an astonishing 74 games, you have to exert dominance at the set piece and the breakdown. With Dan Cole injured, the Leicester scrum is nowhere near as formidable as it needs to be. That said, Clermont loose head Thomas Domingo was destroyed by Mike Ross at international level a few weeks ago and that offers hope for the English outfit. Unfortunately Cole’s replacement Logovi Mulipola is more at home on the loose head side of the scrum.

If Leicester fail to slow down the quality and speed of the Clermont recycle, then they will be in big trouble, especially with Wesley Fofana recovered from the injury that kept him out of the game against Ireland. His ability to break the line and link with Aurelian Rougerie and Napolioni Nalaga can be devastating. However it must be noted that Clermont have had so many wobbles in this tournament in recent years that they will be nervous about this one. The problem for Leicester however is that those blips just don’t surface when they play at home. Overall Clermont appear to have too much class.

Ulster v Saracens

Ulster’s surprise defeat to Cardiff Blues last weekend may serve as a valuable wake-up call in advance of all the hype that surrounds the completion of the new Ravenhill, which will be full to capacity for the first time for this game. It should make for a special occasion.

If free-flowing, broken-field running is your thing, then you won’t find it in this encounter. It is no coincidence, given the South African influence permeating through both sides, that this contest will be decided by who wins the collisions, of which there will be many. Saracens blew Ulster away at the set piece and in the contact area at this stage last season at Twickenham.

If anything Saracens, who are riding high on top of the Aviva Premiership, are now a more rounded side, with Owen Farrell a much improved player since his Lions experience last summer. If he is allowed to control the contest and put Ulster on the back foot, then the Irish province is in big trouble.

For that reason alone, Ulster captain Johann Muller has a huge role. Ulster rely heavily on a productive lineout as a starting point to how they play but were outthought by Saracens last season. Sarries captain Steve Borthwick, who like Muller retires next June, is a master tactician out of touch. He won that battle hands down in Twickenham and Ulster were on the back foot immediately. That has to change for Ulster to prevail today.

Ulster have waited a long time to host a quarter-final but can’t afford to take home advantage for granted. Their defence was outstanding throughout the pool stage, conceding a paltry four tries and with a number of injured front line players now back in harness, they have the resources to prevail. The one downside of their game is an over reliance on outstanding scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, and former Ulster captain and coach Mark McCall will have his Sarries back row focused on blunting his influence. With so many bruising ball carriers on both sides, this game could well be decided by the strength of the benches. With Stephen Ferris now back in harness and held in reserve along with Iain Henderson, that bench impact should be enough to see Ulster to the last four.

Toulon v Leinster

This promises to be the tie of the weekend, given that it brings together two sides that between them have won the last three Heineken Cup titles. While both squads are full to the brim with quality internationals, Leinster’s are predominantly homegrown while Toulon’s have been assembled courtesy of Mourad Boudjellal’s deep pockets.

The biggest plus for the visitors tomorrow is that with 11 players starting and six more on the bench who featured in Ireland’s recent Six Nations campaign, they will be in a better position to cope with the intensity of this contest. The big question is whether Leinster’s forwards will be in a position to provide the quick recycle that will enable them force the pace and tempo to take Toulon out of their comfort zone.

Leinster have the resources up front, and with Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams both out injured, Devin Toner has a crucial role to play in terms of leading the Leinster lineout. With Jonny Wilkinson restored to out-half, Toulon will seek to play a territorial game but with a vulnerable lineout, Leinster have the chance of disrupting the supply line to the former England World Cup winner.

Leinster’s kicking strategy will also be crucial as the Toulon back three have the ability to cut you apart. The decision to opt for Jimmy Gopperth over Ian Madigan at out-half doesn’t surprise me. While his place kicking has been exemplary of late, Madigan’s ability to bring his outside backs into play has been diluted somewhat by taking the first option on the ball on too many occasions. He pays a heavy price for that now.

Toulon rely very much on the intimidation factor when playing at the Stade Felix Mayol and many of the visiting French sides play to that stereotype by sending under strength teams in the Top 14, thereby virtually conceding defeat before they arrive. As a consequence, not many teams carry the game to them which is exactly what Leinster need to do.

Leinster coach Matt O’Connor will be very conscious of that, having been involved against the same opposition with Leicester Tigers at this stage last season. The Tigers almost delivered a shock result but couldn’t sustain the effort for 80 minutes. Leinster are far better equipped to do that and as long as they keep their discipline and avoid giving Wilkinson opportunities to kick penalty goals, they have a chance of recording another famous quarter-final win on French soil that would rank up their with the defeat of Toulouse in 2006.

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