Heineken Cup hopefuls play the home card
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Biarritz versus Northampton in San Sebastian on Sunday is the exception among this weekend’s Heineken European Cup quarter-finals, and not just because it is the only one taking place outside Britain.
In a sharp shift against recent patterns, it is the sole tie for which the home team have chosen the larger crowds and profits to be found at a nearby football stadium over playing on their usual ground. It reflects the reasoning that, desirable though the extra cash may be, a place in the semi-final is even better.
Last season, when all the quarter-finals were moved from the host’s usual home, two resulted in away wins. Leicester fell to Bath at the Walkers Stadium, while Toulouse were beaten at their own audacious attacking game by an inspired Leinster team at Le Stadium.
Wasps, Leicester and Llanelli could all have doubled their attendances by moving to a nearby football ground. Each though has recognised that home advantage consists of much more than having a large crowd cheering you on. It is rooted in familiarity – the usual pre-match routine, the same peg in the same changing room and above all the understanding of a ground, its physical quirks and climatic idiosyncracies – that comes from playing there time after time.
That difference may have cost Ireland this year’s RBS 6 Nations championship. Croke Park is a magnificent stadium where Ireland are backed by a huge and passionate crowd. But Ireland’s players know every inch and oddity of Lansdowne Road.
Hence Leicester’s decision not to return on Sunday to the Walkers, where they have lost both Heineken matches they have played.
Llanelli might have gone down the road to the Liberty Stadium, Swansea, last night when they played Munster. But that would have risked losing not only the familiar confines of Stradey Park but even the minimum element of home advantage as Munster’s travelling hordes pitched up in their thousands. Wasps might have opted to play at Reading on Saturday. Only Biarritz, who have succeeded in turning Real Sociedad’s Anoeta stadium into a second home, are taking the risk.
The French also face the least threatening visitors. A win by Northampton, who are bottom of the Guinness Premiership, would not be quite on the scale of Ireland’s Cricket World Cup overthrow of Pakistan, but certainly comparable to Bangladesh beating India.
Wasps against Leinster offers a fascinating contrast in style. Brian O’Driscoll’s team will want to reproduce the dash displayed at this stage a year ago, but know that where Toulouse will always allow opponents to play, confident in their own ability to play even better, Wasps are quite the opposite and are showing signs of returning to their swarming, constricting best.
Leicester versus Stade Français is the battle of the uberpragmatists, the eighth Heineken clash between these teams. Stade lead 4-3, but Leicester won the one that really mattered, the 2001 final in Paris.
Conventional wisdom is that Leicester are not quite what they were, that they have excelled only once since Christmas. That, typically was the one time they had to, away to Munster. Second in the Premiership, EDF Energy Cup finalists and at home in Heineken quarter-finals is not bad for “not what they were”.
Stade lead the French championship and like Biarritz are desperate to add the Heineken to recent national titles, particularly since the threatened French boycott may rule them out next year. Tight contests seem likely at Wasps’ Wycombe home and Leicester’s Welford Road, with genuine home advantage perhaps decisive.