Top sides show form to make last eight in Heineken Cup

Nothing that happens from here on out will be a big surprise

John Afoa of Ulster crashes into Leicester’s Graham Kitchener in the Heineken Cup game at Welford Road. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/ Inpho/Presseye

John Afoa of Ulster crashes into Leicester’s Graham Kitchener in the Heineken Cup game at Welford Road. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/ Inpho/Presseye

Wed, Jan 22, 2014, 13:59

There’s something a little bit different about the quarter-final line-up in the Heineken Cup that sets it apart from other years.

It’s not often we reach this point with eight teams left who can say, hand on heart, that they have a serious chance of winning. There are no wild cards in the last eight, no team getting through out of a poor group. As well as that there is nobody missing – it’s pretty clear that the top eight teams in the competition have made it through.

It might seem a bit obvious but when you think about it and go back over the years, you find that this happens a lot less than you’d think. Last year, Leinster weren’t in the quarter-finals even though they were one of the top three or four teams in Europe. The previous year, Cardiff got through to the last eight but nobody could really see them lifting the trophy come the end of May. You nearly always get a team that misses out or a team that sneaks in.

Not this year. The last eight this time around are clubs with history in the competition, clubs with serious depth of talent in their squads and quality all the way through. They have 13 Heineken Cups between them and everyone but Saracens have been to a final. In fact you have to go all the way back to 1998 to find a final that didn’t feature one of the eight teams left.

The best way to put it is that nothing that happens from here on out will be a big surprise. All eight teams can win it and all eight teams are in danger of going out right away when the Six Nations ends.

Even Leicester, who have the toughest quarter-final task ahead of them in travelling to Clermont, won’t go to France thinking that it’s a lost cause. They’re big underdogs in that game but that’s as much to do with Clermont’s home record as Leicester’s ability. Any of the other six teams in the quarter-finals would be underdogs going to Clermont. But even so, you wouldn’t be completely shocked if they threw the kitchen sink at it and came away with a win.

That’s one feature of the competition that the best teams have started to work out. Away wins aren’t as rare now as they used to be. Toulouse set the tone early on by going to Wembley and beating Saracens. Ulster followed up the next day winning down in Montpellier. Leinster in Northampton. Northampton in the Aviva. Clermont at Harlequins. Munster in Perpignan. The list goes on, including the biggest result of all – Connacht winning in Toulouse.

Obviously every game is different and different teams find different ways of digging out wins. But I think if you went through each of the quarter-finalists and looked for a common denominator, it would be that over the years they’ve worked out what’s needed in the competition. Especially when it comes to what you need away from home.

Heightened expectation
When I was playing, the formula was simple enough. Win your home games to give yourself a platform. After that, it wasn’t a case of keeping your fingers crossed when you went on the road but you never expected to sweep the boards either. There were plenty of times when we’d come home happy enough after nicking a bonus point in defeat. It was actually something we would have prided ourselves on. And I think most teams were like that.

That attitude has changed. Teams don’t go abroad hoping for the best anymore. Look through all those top eight teams and their results on the road. They travel now with expectation. They go to do a professional job, to bring home the win. No crossing fingers, no hanging in there for a bonus point.

That evolution is striking. When I was playing, we often went to France looking for a miracle. That was what grabbed people’s imagination, the idea of us setting out on these journeys to far-flung places and upsetting the odds. Those days are gone. When Munster went to Perpignan before Christmas, supporters were demanding a win. It’s expected now.

That’s par for the course for the top teams now. You always had it in the back of your head that a French team coming to play on your patch would be flaky enough if you got stuck into them early. But the likes of Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont are long past that kind of mentality.

Big spenders
Of course, some of that comes with the weight of money that the big French teams have. The idea that French teams were only interested in their domestic league has gone to a certain extent because these big owners see Europe as a prize worth winning now. The outlay is huge on their parts and they want to see a return. A Heineken Cup brings

considerable prestige – you only have to look at an expensively-assembled team like Toulon and how they fought to win last year’s final to see that.

Depth of talent is only worth so much. Mindset is hugely important. There was a time when a home quarter-final for Munster in Thomond Park was nearly a sure thing. But there’s no way Toulouse will be intimidated going there in April. Ulster weren’t in 2012 so why would Toulouse be in 2014?

Teams learn from each other. They see what’s possible and try to emulate it. When the competition was in its early days, everything was an adventure. You judged your progress every year on the new barriers you broke down. First clean sweep at home. First win in England. First win in France. First final appearance. First time as champions. The whole idea is that it becomes a normalised situation.

Take a team like Ulster. They went more than a decade after winning in 1999 without making it to the quarter-final stage. They reached the quarter-final in 2011, then the final the next year. At this stage, the least of their expectations every year is the quarter-final.

One thing leads to another. They won in France last year, beating Castres in the last round. Then they went to Montpellier and won this time around. Add those two wins together and it meant that when they went to Leicester in the last game of the group, they had nothing to fear. When you listened to the players talk afterwards, they went there with belief.

That’s huge progress for a team like Ulster. That game at Welford Road was played at ferocious intensity, in an atmosphere that would have intimidated a team that hadn’t evolved as much in the competition as Ulster have. But they stood up and took everything Leicester and the crowd had to throw at them and came away with a massive win.

I was delighted to see Richard Cockerill come out afterwards and admit that there was nothing more his team could have done. They gave Ulster their best shot and Ulster took it gave it back.

Beatable Saracens
That comes over time. Momentum builds, you gain confidence. When you have something to measure yourself against, you’re able to judge what you need to do to go to the next level. Bit by bit, Ulster have built themselves into one of the best teams in Europe. They’ve qualified this time around winning all six of their matches sand they’ll be looking at Saracens coming to Ravenhill and thinking there’s a route to the final there.

That’s how you think as a player coming out of the Six Nations. What’s our route to the final here? The biggest game is always the quarter-final because you know that once you’re past that, everything is up in the air. When Munster got Harlequins in last year’s quarter-final, I know it got them excited. It wasn’t a case of disrespecting Quins or anything, just that they could see a route to the final from there. It didn’t work out against Clermont but they went extremely close.

Every team left in the competition will be thinking that way when the Six Nations is over. Leinster won’t fear going to Toulon, neither will Saracens going to Belfast or Toulouse to Limerick. All eight teams have the players, experience and tradition to win it from here.

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