MayÂ¿s final of the Heineken Cup could see a repeat of 2013 as Toulon and Clermont are in excellent form ahead of the semi-finals.
May's final of the Heineken Cup could see a repeat of 2013 when Toulon edged out Clermont by just a single point. Both teams have been in excellent form throughout this season's competition but as they prepare for the semis, English and Irish opponents are determined to prevent the 2014 final becoming another, all-French affair.
The first semi-final sees Saracens take on Clermont Auvergne and the English squad has the benefit of playing in home conditions at Twickenham. Home advantage can be an obvious benefit but does this current Sarries squad have the quality to overcome a strong Clermont side?
Qualification from Pool 3 wasn't exactly straightforward for Mark McCall's men and after losing out to group winners Toulouse, Saracens scraped through as one of the two highest points scorers. For that, they have to thanks Chris Ashton who is currently the tournament's leading try scorer with nine and clearly the winger has a huge part to play in Saturday's semi.
Ashton scored twice as Sarries scraped past Ulster by 17 points to 15 in a game where Owen Farrell's kicking wasn't at its best and it's also worth remembering that Ulster played the majority of this match with just 14 men.
Clermont's Danger Man
McCall has identified Clermont's Sitiveni Sivivatu as the main threat to his side's hopes of progression. The 32-year old Kiwi's international career may be behind him but the Saracen's coach believes he is the French side's biggest danger.
“You wouldn't concentrate on one person but if someone is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat it's going to be Sivivatu,” McCall told Sky Sports.
“He is amazing. He's got the most metres and offloads in the Heineken Cup and he pops up where you least expect him.”
Sarries are very much the outsiders to win this semi at odds of 2.52 with Betfair while Clermont, who overcame Leicester Tigers in the quarter finals, are the favourites at 1.70. The English side can win it but much depends on Ashton while Farrell, who was off target against Ulster, cannot afford to miss a single kick.
Munster travel to France to take on Heineken Cup Holders Toulon who expect to have Jonny Wilkinson and Bryan Habana back in the side following injuries. The Irish unit will take comfort from the fact that they have already beaten French opposition and after that 47-23 hammering of Toulouse in the quarter finals, there is some confidence amongst the squad.
Despite that win, acting captain Paul O'Connell was downbeat about his team's chances in Sunday's semi final.
“You know you're going to be challenged every single way possible,” O'Connell said.
“It's kind of like the feeling you get the week before you play New Zealand.”
O'Connell deputises in the absence of regular captain Peter O'Mahony while Munster are also without JJ Hanrahan at fly half. This depleted team are rank outsiders at 4.50 to take the game and while O'Connell was equally disparaging of his side's chances prior to the victory over Toulouse, he may not be bluffing this time.
The Wilko factor
Jonny Wilkinson was desperate to get back into the Toulon side and make one last appearance in the Heineken Cup and as he approaches his 35th birthday, his value to the team is as strong as ever. The former England international may rarely venture over the try line these days but his kicking remains deadly accurate and two penalties from two in the quarter final against Leinster helped seal a 29-14 win.
Toulon rely heavily on overseas players and their line up includes Delon Armitage and Drew Mitchell who both scored tries in that victory in the quarters but the return of Wilkinson gives the French unit a further boost.
The odds are stacked against the British sides as we reach the semi final stage of this competition and Saracens and Munster face huge tasks if they are to progress. In all likelihood, we will see a repeat of the 2013 final but Clermont and Toulon know there is danger in their opponents' squads and will both need top performances from numbers 1 through to 15.