The two Heineken Cup finalists will be determined this weekend when Ulster face Edinburgh on Saturday, and champions Leinster meet Clermont on Sunday.
Edinburgh travel to Dublin viewed by many as the real underdogs in this semi-final, but if Ulster treat their Scottish opponents lightly they could get turned over as Michael Bradley’s side have made it to this stage with some impressive performances.
In their Pool they won five of six games and defeated the likes of London Irish, Racing-Metro and Cardiff Blues – which is no easy job – before recording an impressive victory over Toulouse in the last round. Edinburgh (14/1 Outright @ Betfred
) are looking a completely different prospect in the Heineken Cup as in the RaboDirect PRO12, so any Ulster fan smugly remembering their two league wins over Saturday’s opponents could be in for a shock.
All eyes for Ulster (7/2 Tournament Outright) will be on Ruan Pienaar to kick the points to send them through, as he has been in superb form for the Northern Irish side and if Edinburgh give him chances within range he will punish them more often than not.
Coach Brian McLaughlin has been forced into a few changes and are without key players John Afoa, missing through suspension, and Chris Henry, injured, for Saturday’s game. He has made a brave call by picking youngster Paddy Jackson at number ten ahead of Ian Humphreys but McLaughlin is confident he can rise to the occasion.
For Edinburgh, they are blessed as they are not only able to name the identical starting XV that toppled Toulouse but also had the opportunity to rest a number of players last weekend. It is in the pack where Ulster will face a huge battle and Stephen Ferris, Willie Faloon and Pedrie Wannenburg will have their hands full against David Denton, Ross Rennie and Netani Talei.
There remains no argument that Edinburgh are a different proposition in the Heineken Cup and will revel in their underdog status, but Ulster are a strong outfit and look capable of getting the better of their opponents in Saturday’s semi-final, but only just (Match Betting 80mins – Ulster 1/3, draw 20/1, Edinburgh 9/4).
Meanwhile, Leinster (6/4 Heineken Cup Outright) are bidding to become only the second club in Heineken Cup history to win back-to-back titles, but they are going to have their work cut out in Bordeaux, as they face a Clermont side who are in form and particularly deadly in France. At their home ground they are unbeaten in 42 games and a huge, passionate crowd will follow them on the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Bordeaux.
Joe Schmidt’s Leinster have been dominant in the Heineken Cup, unbeaten in their last 13 European matches, and it seems a bit ridiculous that they are the away team in the semi-finals. Not only did Leinster thrash Cardiff in the last round but they have also showed their true class by beating both Edinburgh and Ulster – the other two semi-finalists – in the RaboDirect PRO12 in recent weeks. In Clermont’s victory over Saracens in the quarter-finals, it was their formidable defence that stole the show, and that will need to be the case again if they want to halt a rampaging Leinster.
Clermont (7/5 Outright) welcome Julien Malzieu, Aurélien Rougerie and Julien Bonnaire into the starting XV in three changes from the side that beat Montpellier, while Schmidt has surprised many by preferring Isaac Boss at scrum-half to Eoin Reddan.
The other changes see Gordon D’Arcy come in to partner Brian O’Driscoll at centre while Shane Jennings is preferred to Kevin McLaughlin and Jamie Heaslip comes into the back row. It looks like a strong Leinster side and the greater physicality of Boss should complement Jonathan Sexton. These two sides look closely matched on paper but Leinster are on a roll in the Heineken Cup and their name seems to be on the trophy (Match Betting 80mins – Clermont 4/5, draw 18/1, Leinster EVS).