It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to give his calls. Get ready for the Heineken Cup.
It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to reveal his calls. Get ready for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
Remember you can contact Russ with all your comments and questions on Twitter – @rpetty80.
Clermont vs Montpellier
Les Jaunards have an intimidating home record, winning 17/19 Heineken Cup games in France, by an average score of 31-16 and the last 45 league games by a rate of 32-13. Previously, European glory has been thwarted by travelling away at this stage or meeting Leinster (and sometimes both), so having seen off their nemesis there is a sense that this is Clermont's year. They have beaten Montpellier at home in the last four league meetings by at least thirteen points (average score of 32-10), won their last five home games by an average of 39 points and would have covered the -9 handicap in 7/11 matches, so that is where I am heading. They scored 23 tries in the group stage and 30 tries in last 6 league matches. To match that attacking prowess, they possess a mean defence – only conceding 20 points once in their last fifteen European home games and just 47 points combined in their last five league matches there. I don't see Montpol overturning the odds in just their second Heineken Cup effort. There have been seven cards in the last three league meetings, 21 cards in twelve Montpellier away league games and 21 in eleven Clermont home matches. Referee Wayne Barnes has given out seven cards in six European games this season and 22 in twelve Premiership matches. I will be backing an away card and two cards in match when available, with a view that a possible Jamie Cudmore vs Mamuka Gorgodze clash could be messy. Wesley Fofana has eleven tries in eighteen games so far and scored in both league matches against this opposition, so he is firmly on the try radar.
Saracens vs Ulster
Ulster have won their last four away games in Europe and seven of the last eleven, a huge improvement when you consider they won just seven of 43 games from 1995/96 to end of 2009/10. The Saracens 'wolf-pack' have won 15/19 league games this season, an excellent record by normal standards but more so given they spent the start of the season playing at different venues. The major complaint against the team in the past has been a lack of attacking ambition – however since January they have averaged 28 points per game and there has been a clear change in their mindset. Both outfits have won ten of their last thirteen matches in the competition and their domestic records are very similar. They are also both particularly effective in the second-half of matches with Ulster outscoring teams in 6/6 European games thus far by an average of seven points and in 13/19 league matches by an average of six points. Saracens have been only been outscored twice in nineteen league games and average seven points in that period and fourteen in their last five matches. Ulster have only scored 4/49 PRO12 tries and conceded 4/29 in opening quarter of games while for Saracens it's 3/30 Premiership tries scored in that period and 3/18 conceded. That all points to a very close contest and with a +2 half-time handicap covering in 11/12 away European games for Ulster, I am taking that along with the main +5 handicap.
Harlequins vs Munster
Quins won Pool 3 with six wins, scoring an average of 40 points per game and outscoring opposition in 10/12 halves. They've also won ten of their last twelve in the competition by an average of 30-14 but with three consecutive league losses do have an air of vulnerability for a top seed. Munster will be well aware that winning all six pool games doesn't guarantee a semi-final place and have beaten Quins in the last five Heineken Cup meetings. The hosts can of course point to that 2011 Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final win. Munster have lost 6/9 away games in the league this season by an average of 18-26 and 2/3 in Europe by 19-19. However, Quins have only covered a -7 point handicap in three of their last fifteen league matches. Munster would have been safe with that amount on 32/38 trips to English teams and the last fifteen. In Europe this season, Quins have only scored 2/28 tries and Munster 1/14 in the opening 20 minutes so much like Saturday's HQ tussle, backing the first try to arrive after the first quarter may be a wise play. When a score does come, I'll be looking at the scrum-halves for value as Conor Murray has five in thirteen games this season and Danny Care nine in nineteen. There have been eleven cards in nine Munster league away games and eight in six Heineken Cup games this season. With ten in nine Quins home Premiership games and eleven in six European games, a sin-binning also looks likely.
Toulon vs Leicester
Toulon have won 32/35 home league games by an average score of 31-12 and 6/6 European matches on their own patch by a rate of 39-15. Mourad Boudjellal's chequebook has assembled a squad of stars but that hasn't brought the desired silverware – yet. The expectation levels are high and amidst rumours of coaches being replaced it's worth remembering they've lost the majority of their knockout 'pressure' games in Top 14, Amlin and Heineken Cup in recent seasons. Tigers have won 7/11 Heineken Cup quarter-finals and 1/3 away. Since the 2006/7 final loss to Wasps, they have lost 14/22 away games in the competition (and five wins were against Italian sides). They have lost their last six trips to French sides by an average score of 17-28 and nine of the last eleven. However a stunning performance against rivals Saints and the ability to play the role of underdog will act as positive factors going into the match, as does the fact they won't throw in the towel at Toulon (unlike other sides have). Boudjellal's comments about the opposition only being famous due to people mishearing 'Leinster' for 'Leicester' and the disruption to the 'Castro' transfer also add some spice to the proceedings. Toulon have led in 5/6 Heineken home games at the break by at least eleven points. I am interested in the hosts -4 at the break but also think there is some merit in Tigers +9 on the main handicap as I think they will push the hosts a lot closer than many expect and provide more resistance second half than is usually faced.