French dominance set to continue
April 25, 2014
Will the Toulon faithful be celebrating a second Heineken Cup title in as many years? © Getty Images
Just four teams have a shot at winning the last Heineken Cup. While the off-field battles have finally reached a seemingly happy conclusion, the focus can thankfully return to the pitch where Munster, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne and Saracens will all harbour some dream of lifting that coveted piece of silverware come May 24 in Cardiff.
"We aspire to become the most recognised club brand in world rugby," Saracens CEO Ed Griffiths told the Daily Mail this week. One thing you can say about Saracens is they are not shrinking violets. Everything they do comes with an element of razzmatazz but as they well know, off-field excesses are fine as long as the team is producing results on the field. Saracens have been pushing the bar in the English top flight but they still have just one Premiership title to show for their endeavours in the past few seasons. A tilt at Europe's top prize is still eluding them.
Wesley Fofana will be look to shine at Twickenham © Getty Images
Saracens have packed out Wembley in recent times but the pre-match mutterings from their St. Albans base is an expectation of a much lower attendance when Saracens take on Clermont at Twickenham on Saturday with just 25,000 expected to be present at the game, a figure just about enough to fill the lower tier of HQ.
Sarries knocked over 14-man Ulster in the quarter-finals with Billy Vunipola putting in a No.8 performance for the ages. Clermont, who beat Sarries in the 2011 quarter-finals, will be wary of his threat but pack enough punch of their own to cause Mark McCall's men all manner of difficulty.
Their much-publicised home record is unmatched and they do have some of the world's best players in their back line but as last season's final against Toulon showed, they can have all the territory but if they fail to take chances, they are vulnerable to leaking the odd try.
Weather: There is a chance of rain with the temperature around 14°C.
Odds: Clermont are favourites at 4/7 with Saracens priced at 11/8.
Area to watch: The back-row battle will be ferocious with the likes of Vunipola and Jacques Burger coming up against Julien Bonnaire and Fritz Lee.
Prediction: We think Clermont will just shade this.
Will there be 'Ash Splashes' on show? © Getty Images
Toulon are two wins away from becoming the third team to record back-to-back title wins. Mourad Boudjellal's men have a plethora of stars at their disposal but much of the focus from the English press is likely to be focused on Steffon Armitage. The openside-come-No.8 was immense against Leinster in their quarter-final prompting calls for him to be recalled by England. Stuart Lancaster's decision to visit the Armitage brothers in Toulon this week has fanned those flames but come Sunday, the focus will be on club and not country matters.
Toulon enjoy Drew Mitchell's try against Leinster © Getty Images
Toulon saw off Leinster in the quarter-finals despite losing Jonny Wilkinson early on. In his place, Matt Giteau guided the team home with Mathieu Bastareaud causing all sorts of difficulty in the centres and Juan Smith and Armitage combining neatly in Toulon's back-row. Toulon's faithful will be hoping for more of the same on Sunday as they continue their charge for a Heineken Cup and Top 14 double.
For Munster, they blew away some cobwebs with a six-try thrashing of Toulouse in the quarter-finals of the tournament. They are still not at their 2006 and 2008 standard where they won two titles in three years but when you have the likes of Paul O'Connell and Conor Murray at your disposal, you have enough talent in your ranks to cause a dent in Toulon's title charge.
Weather: It will be a balmy 20°C in Marseille.
Odds: Toulon are 2/7 favourites with Munster priced at 11/4.
Area to watch: It could come down to the accuracy of the boot with Toulon's armoury of Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Delon Armitage taking on Ian Keatley.
Prediction: We think Toulon will win to tee up a repeat of last year's final.
Will Paul O'Connell be celebrating come Sunday evening? © PA Photos
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.