Sky Sports pundit Miles Harrison looks forward to the quarter-final between Leicester Tigers and Bath Rugby…
The Heineken Cup is back this weekend and we are down to the business end of Europe’s great club rugby competition with the quarter finals.
You can watch all four matches live on Sky Sports this weekend – the first of which is the all-English heavyweight battle at the Walkers Stadium in Leicester as Tigers take on Bath.
Miles Harrison will be in the commentary booth for that one, as well as in San Sebastian for Biarritz v Sale, and here is his preview of the first of what could be four classic Cup matches.
We are into the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup now, is there a game you are looking forwards to more than any other?
Miles: You simply can’t go wrong wherever you are this weekend; Leicester, Toulouse, Dublin or San Sebastian.
Rather than picking any one game to go to or watch live on Sky Sports, I would say that you would be mad to miss any of them; they are all mouth-watering, potential classics.
So Leicester versus Bath is first up, does Premiership form give us any indication as to which of these two will be in the last four?
Miles: Looking at the Guinness Premiership table, with Leicester in 3rd and Bath down in 11th you might well say that it gives an indication as to who starts as favourites, and because we are in Leicester, albeit away from Welford Road, the Tigers rightly start so.
Leicester won at Welford Road earlier in the season and although they triumphed at the Rec last weekend, it is not an indication of poor form for Bath.
Since losing to Leinster at the end of the pool stages in the Heineken Cup Bath have posed a different sort of threat. They are no longer just a strong pack, but under Brian Ashton the backs now pose a threat and their form suggests they are improving.
Leicester meanwhile, since their fantastic January when they did all that could heave been asked of them with excellent displays against Stade Francais and Clermont Auvergne, have gone off the boil.
That victory in Bath suggests they have arrested that decline and now they have all of their internationals back.
But I wouldn’t want to overplay the Premiership form factor. You could send yourself mad working out whether that will be relevant but what it all boils down to is two of the biggest, traditional names in English club rugby meeting for the very first time in the European Cup.
With the stakes so high in what is now the biggest club competition, and without wanting to insult any previous Leicester Bath encounters, I would say this is the biggest meeting between these two teams with a great prize at stake
How much does playing at the Walkers Stadium instead of Welford Road help Bath?
Miles: I was very impressed with this venue when we watched Toulouse beat Leicester here last season but that is the only game the Tigers have played here, so there is no great history there. Played one lost one leads us to no particular conclusion.
And on that day Toulouse played very well. For Bath it does helps that it isn’t at Welford Road which is such a tough place to go to and win, but let us not forget that Bath went there last season in the Premiership and came away with a draw.
For each of these quarter finals, with perhaps the exception of Toulouse who have a home from home at the Stadium Municipal, we can say that moving away from Welford Road, Thomond Park or Biarritz levels the playing field a little, but in Leicester with vociferous support, Tigers hold that advantage to a certain extent.
Who are the key players in the match?
Miles: Having said all of that about Bath’s backs, Brian Ashton will be looking for a big game from his experienced forwards.
At the time of writing we don’t know the make-up of the Bath side but we know who would normally be in their 15 and who are their key players.
Bath’s strength is still their pack and they will be wanting a massive game from Steve Borthwick, Danny Grewcock, Lee Mears and Duncan Bell. You could go on and say the whole pack but the second row in particular will be critical in a game against Louis Deacon and Ben Kay – all of whom have played for England in recent memory.
What a battle that will be but also I also think the back row will be central to this match. Tigers have named Lewis Moody, Shane Jennings and Martin Corry, Bath you feel must pick Andy Beattie and Michael Lipman plus one of Zak Feaunati or Gareth Delve – either of the two brings a lot of strength.
Whoever wins the breakdown will win this match. We now know Bath have some backs that can do damage, so if they get some ball and we see a repeat of their first half against Gloucester recently in the Premiership, where for 40 minutes I don’t think there was a team in England that could have lived with them – including Sale, Wasps and Leicester – then Bath could well go on and win this match.
For Leicester Andy Goode and Harry Ellis are key, because with the ball they get form their forwards, if they can get their talented back line moving, Tigers can do a lot of damage.
And can you predict a winner?
Home win: It is a very tough one because I can see all four away sides winning these games. I really wouldn’t rule any of them out. They all have a percentage chance but I will be going for four home wins in these quarter finals.
Given the history of this competition that probably comes as no great shock, but of all of the quarter finals this is the one I find hardest to say ‘home win’.
That is not because Leicester are not a very good side, they are, but because I give Bath a very good chance. It is an all-English tie between groups of players that know each other well. It was tight last week and whenever they play it often comes down to the odd score.
Leicester v Bath in the Heineken Cup quarters is like Manchester United v Liverpool or Arsenal in the last eight of the Champions League. We are on the big stage, with that feeling of a big, traditional rivalry and it will be very, very tight. Don’t miss it!