In what could be the last season of English clubs’ participation in the Heineken Cup as we know it, France’s most successful club, Toulouse, hosts England’s most successful club, Leicester, in a true heavyweight showdown (3pm BST, Sunday).
Toulouse and Leicester have won the Heineken Cup on six occasions between them since the competition first started 15 years ago. However after both sides underachieved last year, they will be desperate to reach at least the semi-finals.
Last season Toulouse scraped through a tricky group containing Harlequins and Gloucester and then imploded at Murrayfield against a plucky Edinburgh side. That quarter-final loss to Edinburgh will still be hurting Toulouse as it was a match that they threw away.
Toulouse can almost be viewed as the French national team in disguise, with a number of international recruits such as Gurthro Steenkamp, Gary Botha, Luke Burgess, Luke McAlister and Timoci Matanavou. With Thierry Dusatoir, Lionel Beauxis, Vincent Clerc, Florian Fritz and Maxime Merdad one can see why they have only failed to reach the knockout stages once in the last ten seasons.
Toulouse won the French Top 14 last season, beating fellow big-spenders Toulon in a nervy, negative final. Toulouse are currently third in the Top 14 and again beat Toulon two weeks ago. They come into the Heineken Cup after a close-fought victory over lowly Bordeaux.
Toulouse have lost twice this season, both away from home at Perpignan and Biarritz and Leicester can take heart from these two defeats. In both games, the opposition attacked Toulouse from everywhere on the field and gave their pack a real run around. Toulouse have probably the biggest pack in Europe and you must stop their off-loading game and tempo otherwise you are in for a long afternoon.
Toulouse may have a superb set-piece but their opponents this week have by far the best set-piece in England and potentially the second best in Europe. With Marcos Ayerza back after the Rugby Championship, Leicester have four of the best props in Europe with Dan Cole, Martin Castrogiovani, Logovi’I Mulipola and Ayerza and they will give Toulouse a far more difficult afternoon at scrum-time than usual.
The key to the contest will be how Julian Salvi can nullify Thierry Dusatoir, the second best open-side flanker in World rugby. Leicester welcomed back England star’s Ben Youngs and Manu Tuliagi last week in their 20-8 win at Sale Sharks and they come into this weekend’s match in third position in the league after four wins, a draw at Saracens and a loss at home to Harlequins.
Last season Leicester failed to qualify for the knockout stages from a very difficult group that contained Ulster and Clermont Auvergne and this season’s group is equally difficult with Toulouse, Ospreys and Treviso.
In previous years English sides would have travelled to France only playing for a losing bonus-point but after Harlequins’ wins in Paris and Toulouse in recent years, there seems to be an increase in optimise about crossing the channel.
Toulouse v Leicester Heineken Cup Betting Tips
If Leicester can return to England with a win, then they will be set to top the group and much will depend on how they nullify the Toulouse pack. The French giants, like their national side do have the tendency to self-implode as they did last year against Edinburgh and silencing the crowd at Le Stadium will help that happen.