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Dublin: 5°C Thursday 26 November 2020
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Analysis: Who has the right to call themselves Heineken Cup favourites?

Ulster will feel like they’ve got the final in clear sight, writes Patrick McCarry, while Leinster travel to Bordeaux to take on a star-studded Clermont Auvergne

Rory Best takes the acclaim at Thomond Park
Rory Best takes the acclaim at Thomond Park
Image: Julien Behal/PA Wire/Press Association Images

TWO CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, two blow-out victories and four teams that believe the Heineken Cup is destined to travel home with them in May.

Speaking after his side’s 34-3 win over Cardiff at the Aviva Stadium, Mike Ross remarked that he and his Leinster teammates would be striving hard to add more silverware to Brad Thorn’s ‘bulging trophy cabinet’.

The optimism of players and supporters is understandable but, now that the advertising slogans have been power-washed off the grass, we will look at the four remaining sides and assess their chances.

Leinster

The reigning champions finally clicked into gear as they swept Cardiff Blues aside. Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney were sensational again and Jonny Sexton delivered a passing masterclass.

It was heartening for Leinster fans to see Brian O’Driscoll scampering over for a first try since his return. Leo Cullen and Brad Thorn have a combined age of 71 in the second-row but are looking potent.

Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll. (©INPHO/Ryan Byrne)

The only area of real concern would be the lack of a test before they face Clermont in France at the end of the month. Three Pro 12 games are scheduled but top spot is virtually assured.

The sight of Clermont losing on French soil is as rare as an albatross at the Masters in Augusta … oh, wait.

Clermont Auvergne

Hands up – I predicted a Saracens win before kick-off on Sunday. After I typed out the team news I wanted to change my mind. So many star names and a backline to rival that of Leinster’s but they were happy to grind out a comprehensive win over Saracens.

Julien Bonnaire and Nathan Hines were outstanding in their 22-3 win and every Clermont player that took to the field was dogged in defence. The 35-year-old Hines, from Wagga Wagga, has great memories of his time at Leinster but would love to spoil the Blues’ ambitions of retaining their crown.

Aurelien Rougerie showed his class in timing his run for Lee Byrne’s try and was fierce in defence. His partnership with Wesley Fofana will test Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll to the limit. They also have the wing talents of Julien Malzieu and Sitiveni Sivivatu.

One of the only consolations for the travelling Leinster supporters in late April is that the match is taking place in Bordeaux. They very rarely lose at the Stade Michelin but the trip to France remains a daunting prospect.

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Edinburgh

No-one, apart from the most hopeful of Edinburgh supporters, was predicting a win for the home side. Nonetheless, they thoroughly deserved their victory over Toulouse.

Greig Laidlaw was superb in kicking 14 points and Mike Blair’s try stunned the French side. Unheralded players such as Grant Gilchrist and Matt Scott tackled like demons and negated the opposition’s plans to put the squeeze on late.

Edinburgh’s David Denton. (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)

Edinburgh have a savvy coach in the form of Irishman Michael Bradley, who often coaxed similar underdog performances when he oversaw Connacht.

Young guns such as David Denton and Lee Scott have been a revelation this season and winger Tim Visser will attempt to run Andrew Trimble ragged. No offence intended as I label them fourth favourites but their excellent win has galvanised the squad and they will fancy their chances against Ulster in Dublin.

Ulster

The cup is now the limit after they stunned Munster at Thomond Park on Easter Sunday. An early lead was clawed back by the home side but the 15 men of Ulster – there were no substitutions – used every last ounce of energy to hold on.

Brian McLaughlin took a huge risk as he left his starting XV on to finish the job they superbly started but it paid off. How Stephen Ferris motored around on that crook ankle for 80-plus minutes, only he knows.

The flanker was not the only hero on the day as Ruan Pienaar punished Munster with momentous penalties, John Afoa charged about like a spry full-back and Craig Gilroy announced himself to the rugby-watching world.

Ulster will fancy their chances of reaching their first Heineken Cup Final since their win in 1999, and rightly so. Fans will stream down from the province to the Aviva and their pack should hold sway on Edinburgh.

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