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The Final Countdown

I just love these final pool weekends in European rugby.  Even for a neutral there is so much drama and intense competition to enjoy.  If you remember last year there was a quite staggering result for French Top14 royalty Clermont who failed to realise all they needed was a losing bonus and managed to knock themselves out of the tournament.  This left a quite startled and bemused Exeter to go through to the quarters!

For me too apart from the poor old Italians we have seen a proper spread of European quality in the tournament.  It’s healthy and more exciting with potentially Scottish, Irish, English and French teams all in the quarters.  I would have loved to see for the first time in a while a Welsh team make it but Scarlets did themselves proud in a tough, tough pool.

So onto the weekend’s big games, the type of games  as a player and a fan you just can’t wait for.  Four of the quarter finalists are already accounted for but this is far from over as we all know seedings and home advantage count for a huge amount.

The real interest this weekend will be on who gets the spots from 5-8 as there are still a number of possibilities.  Bonus points are going to count and other teams’ results will have a knock on effect.

Leinster, who have been superb for the whole campaign,  have what could be a slightly tricky fixture away to Castres.  If Castres in front of their home crowd decide they want to really play then an upset is not inconceivable.  I do however back the boys from Dublin to get the win and nail that home quarter. 

The big and meaty Montpellier side are at home to Northampton Saints and still have a chance of qualifying.  They do however have to depend on Toulon losing to Saracens without a bonus point and gaining a bonus point themselves.  Something they have struggled to do as one of the sides with the least tries in this campaign.  Saints will want to keep momentum and build on a run of form so will not roll over.  Expect some big, big hits and a good old fashion arm wrestle.

Exeter Chiefs were back to their scintillating best last weekend against Ulster and have given themselves a slither of a chance to qualify.  The big road block is yellow and blue and has some of the most passionate fans in the game.  Clermont have been on top form and although their result last weekend was one for the absolute purists as Bordeaux were ground down in a 6-9 win at home you just have to back them.  I expect Exeter however to give it an absolute lash and with Jack Nowell back to his very best and their wonderful team spirit if anyone can upset the odds it could be the Devonians.

The monster clash of the weekend has got to be Saracens v Toulon.   Saracens are missing plenty including the big ball carrying of the Vunipolas as well as second row Kruis and hard tackling captain Barritt and they know home quarter final hopes are hanging on a thread.   Toulon on the other hand look pretty full strength especially with Aussie Matt Giteau back and this team will be coming to North London to  save their European campaign.

The sub plots abound with superstar studded Toulon in woeful form but now boasting an English coaching duo of Mike Ford and ex Leicester Tigers supremo Richard Cockerill.  Cockers fresh from his surprise sacking is actually a perfect choice by Mike Ford to add some steel to the Toulon pack.  He will bully those boys back in to shape and we should see a much improved performance from Toulon.  Both Ford and Cockers know Saracens well and together I expect them to come up with a clever plan to beat the severely depleted champions.

Cockers old team Leicester Tigers are out of the tournament but they are at home and this is where they have been at their best.  Scottish hopes rest on Glasgow making the quarter finals for the first time and so this is going to be quite some game.  Glasgow  have been a joy to watch and have Scottish internationals in most positions plus they are brilliantly coached by Gregor Townsend.    However, Tigers were handed a bit of a beating by a poor Racing 92 side last week so the old bounce back is on the cards.   

Munster to me look nailed on for that home quarter too with the lads playing with a ferocity and passion that is totally old school but incredibly effective.  They will be hoping that key man Connor Murray is good to go after his knock last weekend but with that home crowd back in full voice a lacklustre Racing 92 side look likely to succumb.

My final must see game is Connacht away to Toulouse.  Make no mistake this is a cup final for both these teams.  With Wasps sitting pretty and facing whipping boys Zebre the other two are fighting it out for runners up spot.  Connacht could probably get through on a losing bonus point but may need two points to guarantee it.  Toulouse so very nearly beat Wasps away last weekend just falling to a last minute try so they should be feeling confident.  With a typically supersized pack ready to rumble it is going to be a tough one for the Connacht lads. 

So eyes down calculators at the ready and by Sunday evening we will know who the quarter finalists are and which teams have claimed those crucial home quarters.