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Contrasting Heineken Semi Finals expected as French sides dominate across Europe this year

It is semi finals weekend in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup, with France dominating proceedings across both tournaments.

In total there are five French teams featuring in the four semi finals across both tournaments. Clermont Auvergne, who are the tournament favourites, host Munster at Montpellier in the Heineken Cup on Saturday, with Toulon coming to Twickenham to play Saracens on Sunday.

In the Amlin it is an all French affair on Friday night with Stade Francais travelling to Perpignan to take on the Catalan club, while Biarritz make the trip to reigning Heineken Cup champions Leinster on Saturday.

Clermont Auvergne v Munster – Saturday 27th 17.00, Heineken Cup

Leinster are in the Amlin after failing to finish above Clermont in their Heineken Cup pool this year, the French side have been unbeaten at home for a staggering 59 matches, a record they extended by beating Montpellier in the quarter finals.

Oddly though, Clermont have elected to stage their semi final against Munster in Montpellier, a move that could encourage Munster a little, particularly in light of their passionate victory over Harlequins in the quarter final.

Clermont are the overwhelming favourites though, their side simply oozes class through the likes of Bonnaire, Hines and Domingo in the forwards, through to the extreme pace, power, and try scoring threat that they possess in the backline through the likes of Fofana, Nalanga, Sivivatu, Rougerie, and Lions outside bet Lee Byrne.

The whole package is linked brilliantly by Morgan Parra at scrum half. Woefully underused by France in the Six Nations, there is no chance of Clermont making the same mistake; Parra will dictate proceeding with his probing kicking game and chirpy attitude.

Munster by contrast are a growing side, emerging from the shadows of the great sides of the 2000’s, they are trying to bring through new blood to replace those bygone stars like Alan Quinlan and Jerry Flannery.

As such it has been a topsy-turvy old season for the former two time champions, however the return of Paul O’Connell from a long-term back injury seems to have galvanised the squad, and his performance against Harlequins was simply monumental, propelling him to the front of Warren Gatland’s plans from a Lions perspective.

If Casey Laulala and James Downey can perform as they did in that game too then Munster stand a good chance of shackling this Clermont machine, but the absence of Doug Howlett is a blow.

In Howlett’s absence, the return of Simon Zebo takes on even more importance and the young winger will be desperate to use this last chance to boost his Lions chances.

Ultimately though it will be in the forwards where this battle will be won and lost, the likes of O’Mahony and Ryan will have to meet the Clermont challenge head on, while Ronan O’Gara needs will need to be at his controlled best at fly half.

Prediction: Clermont by about 10.

Saracens v Toulon – Sunday 28th 15.00, Heineken Cup

Saracens v Toulon could not appear more contrasting to the first Heineken Cup semi final, where Clermont look like the clear favourites in their game, this match is almost impossible to predict.

The battle of the fly halves will make the headlines in the build up to the game, with Jonny Wilkinson directing proceedings for Toulon and his heir apparent in an England shirt, Owen Farrell, dictating matters for Saracens (unless Charlie Hodgson makes a surprise start).

Adding even more spice to their personal duel is the Lions debate, with Farrell widely tipped to be touring with Wilkinson left behind, a Jonny Wilkinson inspired Toulon victory could pose some interesting questions for the Lions management.

The reality as ever though is that this game will be decided by far more subtle matters than the personal battle between the 10’s; the scrum for a start is likely to have a huge bearing on the game with Toulon’s hugely experienced front row of Sheridan, Bruno, and Hayman (with Jenkins waiting in reserve!) looking to outmuscle Saracens’ Vunipola, Brits and Stevens.

For Vunipola in particular it will be a tough game, facing arguably the best tighthead in the world in Hayman, it could be the making of him if he can get on top.

In the midfield Brad Barritt will need to be at his defensive best in order to shackle the contrasting talents of Matt Giteu and Mathieu Bastareaud in the Toulon centre.

Saracens will look to use their strong tactical gameplan to beat Toulon, probing through Farrell at fly half and Alex Goode at full back, using clever kicks to turn Delon Armitage at full back for Toulon.

It is Armitage’s brother Steffon who will command much of the attention though. The burly openside flanker has been grabbing headlines for a long time now with his eye-catching displays for the French outfit and will be desperate to do so again, particularly in front of so many watching English fans and coaches.

Charged with stopping Armitage will be Saracens own openside protégé, Will Fraser. The young flanker has been tipped for England honours this summer and trained with the squad during the Six Nations. If he can get the better of Armitage on Sunday then he could shoot to the top of the pecking order.

If Saracens will try to use their usual kick/chase tactics, Toulon will be slightly more rounded in their approach. Not adverse to putting boot to ball themselves, after all they have Wilkinson at ten, they will look to use some of their strike runners a little more though, with Fernandez-Lobbe in particular a keen counter attacker from kicked opposition ball.

Do not expect a fast and loose performance from either side though, regardless of the new sunny London that we appear to have stumbled across,  this is a game likely to be decided by the finest of margins.

Prediction: Toulon by less than 5.

Perpignan v Stade Francais – Friday 26th 20.00, Amlin Challenge Cup

There is a decent British representation in the Perpignan side for this encounter, with Luke Narraway and Alasdair Strokosch appearing in the back row, after doing so for many years together at Gloucester, and James Hook looking to sneak onto the Lions plane from fly half.

The excitement in this game though is likely to come from the battle of the two number eight’s, Perpignan have the former Leicester Tigers and Samoa powerhouse Henry Tuilagi at the base of their scrum, while Stade the Italian great, Sergio Parisse, inspiring them.

Perpignan look the more balanced side overall, with Stade giving the impression of stagnating somewhat over the last few years. With an Amlin final spot and a potential route to the Heineken Cup at stake though, both will be up for this.

Prediction: Perpignan by around 7.

Leinster v Biarritz – Saturday 27th 14.30, Amlin Challenge Cup

After three Heineken Cups in four years an Amlin Challenge Cup semi final is not what Leinster would ideally be looking forward to at this stage of the season, however despite the fact that it is the Amlin and not the Heineken Cup, this side still oozes class and quality and has been coming into some real form of late.

With pride, Lions places, and indeed a trophy all to play for, Leinster will be up for this and with home advantage they will be expecting to win.

Biarritz on paper are a strong outfit but too often over the last few years they have flattered to deceive. With a reputation for being poor travellers it seems unlikely that they can pull of a win, however with the likes of Harinordoquy and Yachvilli in their side they can never be written off.

Leinster have potential Lions all over their side, and having underperformed for a lot of the season in an Ireland shirt and in the Heineken, they will be absolutely desperate to use this match to cast any remaining doubts away from Warren Gatlands mind.

Prediction: Leinster by more than 10.

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