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.

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