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Heineken Cup
MILES HARRISON'S ROUND 5 PREVIEW
7 April 2006, 2:01 pm
By Pete Griffin
Sky Sports' Miles Harrison looks forward to the feast of rugby that is Round 5 of the Heineken Cup.
Once again their is a visual feast of Heineken Cup rugby on Sky Sports this weekend.

I was tempted to predict a draw for several fixtures amongst this round of matches, but have forced myself to side one way or the other.

This is the stage of the tournament where the heat rises, and in our televised games, the results will have serious consequences on the outcome of both the pools and the entire tournament.

Gloucester's trip to Ulster, Bath hosting Leinster, Munster at home to the Ospreys all whet the appetite, before a super Sunday of action as the Scarlets hosts the Saints and, my pick of the weekend, the pool one clash between Leicester and Biarritz.

Pool 3
Friday, January 07
Glasgow (Sco) v Toulouse (Fra)
KO 7.30pm

Watching Toulouse this season has been very strange. They seem to have been lagging a bit and doing just enough to come through the pool stages. But they know that it is the New Year and it is time to crank it up.They know too, the importance of a home quarter final as no one will fancy a trip to Toulouse in the last eight. Glasgow, in what is predicted to be wet conditions, is a potential banana skin though.

PREDICTION:
On a wild night in Glasgow, anything can happen, but Toulouse have the players to beat most sides in the competition. Expect them to turn up the heat over the nest two weekends.

Pool 6
Friday, January 07
Ulster (Ire) v Gloucester (Eng)
KO 7.30pm, Sky Sports 2, 7pm

Ever since the first game in this pool, when they entertained against Stade Francais but left Paris with nothing, Gloucester have been playing catch-up.

After Stade slipped up at Ulster, Gloucester will have it in their minds that a win in Belfast means they will have a chance to take the French champions back to Kingsholm, and battle it out to win the pooll

But first they will have to get past Ulster at Ravenhill, where the Irishman have an impressive record.

The scale of this task has been compounded by a lengthy injury list that sees Duncan McRae and James Simpson-Daniel missing behind a pack in which Phil Vickery is only just coming back to full match fitness after a six-week lay-off.

Ulster will be playing for more than just pride on Friday, as with a win, hey would still retain a slim grasp on a berth in the knockout stages.

But Ulster are an incredibly proud side, and having an English team at Ravenhill will be incentive enough for them. Remember Leicester there last season!

Gloucester need a typically gutsy Cherry and White performance, and must improve upon their display in the recent ZP defeat at home to the Tigers, particularly in the scrum.

PREDICTION:
Ulster. At home, you have to have compelling case to back against them, as Stade Francais this year and Leicester last year proved.

Goucester have the ability to win this and take the pool to a climax at Kingsholm, but Ulster could just edge this one. A tremendous night in store whatever the outcome.

Pool 6
Friday, January 07
Stade Francais (Fra) v Cardiff (Wal)
KO 7.30pm

The Blues haven't had the best of fortune again in the Heineken Cup, but critically have not made their own luck.

They are bottom of the table and the table doesn't lie. I don't expect them to beat Stade Francais, but I would expect to see a lot of spirit again. Stade Francais at home are a handful.

PREDICTION:
Stade Francais, and with every chance of getting the bonus point.

You are spoilt for choice on Saturday, with three top drawer Heineken Cup matches broadcast throughout the afternoon.

Of course, you could just watch all three. And that would mean seeing Ireland's premier contenders Munster and Leinster in action.

But there is also the small matter of Jonny Wilkinson and Newcastle travelling to south west France to take on Perpignan, where a win would take them into the quarter finals for the first time in their history.

It will be tough, but if Wilkinson, Jamie Noon and the Falcons are on song, they could beat the French championship runners-up, in their own back yard, the Bull Ring.

Pool 2
Saturday, January 08
Bath (Eng) v Leinster (Eng)
KO 1pm, Sky Sports 2, 12.30pm

Last year I tipped Leinster as outsiders. This season they have begun with four wins from four and are looking very strong in this pool. I also sense that last year's disappointment has proved a vital learning experience.

Bath v Leinster
 
For Bath it will be like playing Ireland, particularly in the backs where Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy are worth the entry money alone. And the likes of Malcolm O'Kelly, Victor Costello and Eric Miller have got their pack going forward too.

Injury lists are never an excuse, but Bath's is ridiculous currently and they are seriously hampered.

But they are former European champions, had an excellent season in the ZP last year, are enjoying a reasonable domestic campaign this year and you can bet Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick will be fired up for this one.

PREDICTION:
Leinster. They have so much quality and Bath have so many injuries, I'm backing Leinster to book their spot in the quarter finals with a win on Saturday.

Pool 2
Saturday, January 08
Treviso (Ita) v Bourgoin (Fra)
KO 1.30pm.

They are unlikely to win at Leinster on the final weekend of the pool stages, but with a win at home to Bourgoin on Saturday, they would have a three out of five success ratio, and few partial observers would begrudge them that. Their success is a real boost to the tournament.

Saturday depends of course on which Bourgoin side will turn up. Bourgoin could win in Italy, but will they be interested?

PREDICTION:
Treviso. It might be my romantic side coming through, but Treviso have built on their win in France, will be buoyed by their defeat of Bath and might well claim a third European victory this season.

Pool 5
Saturday, January 08
Dragons (Wal) v Edinburgh (Sco)
KO 1.30pm.

At the start of the competition I had high hopes for the Dragons, but it hasn't really happened for them since their opening loss to Newcastle at home, when the conditions and the tension may have got the better of them.

Now their success will rely on results elsewhere. First off though, they need to beat Edinburgh and well. Then they can go to Newcastle next weekend, and if the Falcons have lost to Perpignan this week, they will have everything to play for.

PREDICTION:
Dragons. They will keep alive their hopes of progress into the knockout stages.

Pool 4
Saturday, January 08
Castres (Fra) v Harlequins (Eng)
KO 3pm

It is all over for Harlequins. You sensed that the European Cup might kick-start their season after the narrow defeat to Munster, but is hasn't happened.

You do sense though that they may yet have a surprise in store for someone and that could be at Castres, or next week at the Stoop against Munster.

PREDICTION:
Castres were too good for Munster and the Ospreys in France, they should be too good for Quins as well.

Pool 5
Saturday, January 08
Perpignan (Wal) v Newcastle (Eng)
KO 3pm, Sky Sports 2

Newcastle stand perilously close to their first qualification from the pool stages. Victory in Perpignan and they are home and dry, but a loss and they will have to do it at home to the Dragons next week, and tension will creep in.

 Rob Andrew has been saying that qualification in the Heineken Cup is the next step in the Falcons' development and that Perpignan on Saturday represents the biggest game in the club's history. They will be up for this!

The likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Jamie Noon will need to have big games and the Falcons pack will have to nullify the powerful Perpignan forwards.

If they are still in it after 20 minutes then it will make for an interesting contest. If they can stop the crowd from singing, and mimic Wasps last season at Aimé- Giral, they have every chance.

PREDICTION:
Perpignan. Newcastle are not where Wasps were this time last year, and to be able to beat a team like Perpignan in their own backyard might be too much but where there's a Jonny there's a way! And it is not as if the Falcons are a one man team anyway. They have realistic chances to win.

Pool 4
Saturday, January 08
Munster (Ire) v Ospreys (Wal)
KO 5.15pm, Sky Sports 1

Munster have been teetering in the Heineken Cup this season. They dogged out narrow wins over Quins and Ospreys and just edged the two legs with Castres.

They have never lost at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup, but for the Ospreys, Munster will hold no surprises now with regular meetings in the Celtic League.

Without Ronan O'Gara the test becomes even tougher against a good Neath-Swansea side that have been impressive in the Celtic League. It will be another close one and could be a classic.

PREDICTION:
Munster: Thomond Park will roar the side home, just.

A third day of sensational Heineken Cup action on Sunday sees two more live games on Sky.

Two sides with real European pedigree but who short on form this season are in a fight for survival in this year's Heineken Cup at Stradey Park.

Llanelli must beat Northampton and then win in Toulouse if they are to make another appearance in the knockout stages, whereas a win for the Saints will keep the pressure on Toulouse at the top of the pool.

And last but not least, it is off to Welford Road for pool one's clash of the weekend between in-form Leicester and leaders Biarritz. The Tigers should beat the poor travelers from south west France and set up a home quarter final.

Pool 4
Sunday, January 09
Llanelli (Wal) v Northampton (Eng)
KO 1pm, Sky Sports 2, 12.30pm

Scarlets stand on the verge of a great escape in the Heineken Cup. Beaten twice in their first two matches, they have bounced back with two wins over Glasgow, and that must continue at Stradey Park on Sunday.

Like Northampton, Scarlets have been living off their former reputation in the Heineken Cup, rather than on their current form, and to complete the comeback they will have to improve considerably against the Saints and then Toulouse.

For whatever reason the Alan Solomons experiment didn't work at Franklin's Gardens and they had a team spirit that wasn't conducive to winning matches.

But with Paul Grayson and Budge Pountney now at the helm, Northampton have two of their own boys in charge, and have turned the corner.

PREDICTION:
Llanelli and Northampton are both feeling much better about themselves than they were earlier in the season.  This one is almost too tight to call but based on Northampton's more recent resurgence, I'll go for the Saints although the coin could quite easily have fallen the other way!

Pool 1
Sunday, January 09
Leicester (Eng) v Biarritz (Fra)
KO 3pm, Sky Sports 2

It is a cliché but so often untrue, to talk about French teams being poor on the road, but this year with Biarritz, it is spot on Since memorable wins against Sale and the Scarlets in the Heineken Cup last year, they have regressed.

Aside from winning in Calvisano, they have not won on the road since August, and were so timid against Wasps earlier in this pool, when they paused and allowed Wasps to dominate the game.

Leicester are top quality and are the form team as their pre-Xmas games against Wasps proved.

Martin Johnson and John Wells will not just be looking at winning on Sunday but they will want a home quarter final to make life easier later on. One step at a time yes, but Leicester are clearly capable of taking the biggest step of all.

PREDICTION:
Leicester. On top of their game at the moment, they will be too good for reluctant travellers Biarritz.

Pool 1
Sunday, January 09
Wasps (Eng) v Calvisano (Ita)
KO 3pm
Mark van Gisbergen might need his calculator here on Sunday. You have to feel sorry for Calvisano being drawn in this group but they have acquitted themselves well and will be better of for the experience. Wasps though will not have given up hope of defending their crown and will score their five tries and secure the bonus point.

PREDICTION: Wasps. Warren Gatland will still believe that Wasps can qualify for the quarter finals at that begins with five points on Sunday at home to the Italians. They will relish the opportunity of travelling to Biarritz needing a five-point win.


 

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