Heineken Cup - Round 4 Preview
Revenge on the menu in Europe
ESPNscrum Staff
December 15, 2011

The race for places in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals reaches a crucial turn this weekend as Europe's finest gear up for their final Pool games of the year.

As ever, the pre-Christmas double-headers are set to sort the wheat from the chaff, with Harlequins, the Scarlets and Leicester Tigers among those queueing for another shot at their main Pool rivals.

Conor O'Shea's impressive Harlequins must wait until Sunday for another go at Toulouse following last weekend's humbling 21-10 reversal at the Stoop, and Guy Noves' European thoroughbreds will be supremely confident on their own track.

They have a four-point buffer over Quins at the summit of Pool 6, with Gloucester and Connacht a further three and five point back respectively prior to their rematch at Kingsholm on Saturday.

The Scarlets were briefly darlings of the European set after their demolition of Northampton at Franklin's Gardens in round two, but the Munster juggernaut took a hefty chunk out of their last-eight ambitions last weekend thanks to a narrow 17-14 win at Parc y Scarlets.

Victory at Thomond Park is a tall order for any side - only Leicester and Quins have managed it in Europe - and Nigel Davies' young side will need every ounce of their flair and exuberance to outdo their experienced rivals, who have a two-point cushion at the top of Pool 1, on Sunday. Northampton, last season's beaten finalists, are after a first win in this year's tournament when they take on Castres in Sunday's other game, having been thumped by their Top 14 rivals in France.

Leicester are currently third in Pool 4, which is ferociously tight. The Tigers lost 30-12 to a star-studded Clermont Auvergne side at the Stade Marcel Michelin last time out and the French will travel to Welford Road in search of a losing bonus point at the very least. Skipper Aurelien Rougerie misses the trip with a chest infection, handing a chance to former All Black Regan King in midfield.

Ulster are currently second in the shake-up and want another five-point haul against Italian strugglers Aironi this weekend. The Irish province have tough ties early in 2012 as they head for France and welcome the Tigers to Ravenhill, making this a prime opportunity to stay in the mix.

Leinster, the reigning champions, are three points clear in Pool 3, with Bath the visitors to Lansdowne Road this weekend. Joe Schmidt's side enjoyed their outings at the home of Irish rugby last season and will want to flex their muscles against a West Country outfit that has bags of heart, but questionable credentials at this level. What Sir Ian McGeechan's side proved at the Rec in round three is that they won't go quietly, and Leinster will anticipate another hard outing after last weekend's 18-13 win.

Glasgow sit second after bloodying Montpellier's collective nose at Firhill last weekend, but the Scottish side face a tough task at the Stade Olympique Yves du Manoir, where Leinster were held to a draw in round one.

Saracens returned to Wembley in round three and saw off the challenge of the Ospreys 31-26 to move top of Pool 5 with 10 points. They have retained the same starting XV for this weekend's trip to Swansea, with the Ospreys three points back in a tight group. John Smit returns among the replacements for the Premiership champions, with Charlie Hodgson again named at fly-half and Owen Farrell at outside-centre.

The Ospreys have rejigged their pack to give it a more familiar feel, allowing Ryan Jones and Jonathan Thomas to return to the back-row. Ian Gough and Ian Evans will combine in the second-row while Paul James starts at loose-head following an injury layoff.

Biarritz are also back on home soil and the French giants have work to do after a 30-26 away loss to a gutsy Treviso side in the last round. Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Peyrelongue return to the starting XV for the Basques, who are level with the Ospreys and just a point ahead of their visitors.

Cardiff Blues have the reins in Pool 2 prior to their Murrayfield meeting with Edinburgh on Friday night, following a scrappy 25-8 win over their Scottish rivals last weekend.

Dan Parks dominated with the boot at Cardiff City Stadium and the Scotland pivot will need to guide his side once again against an Edinburgh team with a penchant for the unpredictable. For the home side, Greig Laidlaw shifts to fly-half in place of Harry Leonard, while Netani Talei and Grant Gilchrist get starts in the pack. The Blues had hoped to hand a debut to Gavin Henson, but the Wales centre must wait after missing out on the 23. Gavin Evans starts on the wing in place of the injured Alex Cuthbert in the only change.

London Irish sparked into life last time out with a 34-14 bonus-point victory over Racing Metro, and Toby Booth's Exiles are in with a sniff of a dramatic comeback. They are currently five point behind the leaders, with three rounds remaining.

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