Heineken Cup draw offers hope of rare English success in Europe

English success in Europe has been a rare phenomenon in recent seasons but this year's Heineken Cup draw offers at least a glimmer of genuine hope.

Both Harlequins and Saracens have earned juicy home ties in the quarter-finals and there could be a semi-final on English soil if Saracens can overcome Ulster in the last eight in early April.

With home advantage statistically offering a significant advantage, both London clubs will feel they have a reasonable chance of progressing after a hectic final weekend of pool games which has worked out pretty well for the Premiership's leading sides. Saracens would have been far less confident about taking on Ulster in Belfast and, potentially, Toulon in the south of France but both those opponents will now be required to travel.

Quins will also be happy enough to welcome Munster to The Stoop, although they would probably sell out Twickenham itself if they decided to switch the fixture. The semi-final draw, on the other hand, has been rather less kind to the English champions. If Conor O'Shea's team do beat his old friends from Munster, they will face the daunting prospect of playing in France against the winners of Clermont Auvergne and Montpellier. Clermont are the favourites for this year's title and this latest draw has done nothing to undermine that status.

"A home quarter-final is crucial in this tournament and especially to have a game in Clermont where we have a proud record," their coach, Vern Cotter, said. "We're very happy for our supporters because it's the first time they will have a crack at a [home] quarter-final and their enthusiasm will bring our team along for what will be a tough game."

Leicester, who claimed the final spot by edging out Toulouse in the Welford Road snow, will also have to progress the hard way. Toulon, described as the "glitterati" of world rugby by Toby Flood, have a vast array of talent and the potential duel between Flood and his former Newcastle team-mate Jonny Wilkinson is just one of several enticing match-ups.

For the Leicester Tigers director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, however, the presence of three English sides in the last eight – only Saracens flew the flag last season – is reason for cautious optimism. "On our day all our top English clubs can compete if they've got their best guys available. It's just that, if you take out three or four key guys, we haven't the depth the French can buy. That's not a complaint, it's a fact.

"I'm delighted for Quins and Sarries. It shows that the Premiership is still a strong competition because some big teams have missed out. Toulouse not qualifying is big for them. It shows what quality we've got in our squad."

The prospect of going to Marseille, where Toulon may well opt to move the fixture, is a daunting one nevertheless. "Clearly it would be a big result but in a one-off game there's no reason why you can't go down there and do that," said Cockerill. He scarcely needs reminding that French or Irish sides have won seven of the last eight Heineken Cup titles nor that the tournament grows ever harder to win.

Leinster, champions for three of the last four years, have failed to make the quarter-finals and Toulouse and Racing Métro, two of the wealthiest sides in France, have also been unable to make the cut. Interestingly all four home quarter-finalists are sides who have never previously won a Heineken title. The chances of a new name on the trophy in May look reasonable.

The English are also strongly represented in the Amlin Challenge Cup draw. Bath, Gloucester and London Wasps all have home advantage against Stade Français, Biarritz and Leinster respectively, three contests with a genuine edge to them. Should they win, Wasps have also been drawn at home in the semi-finals against the winner of the Gloucester v Biarritz fixture.

The other quarter-final is an all-French affair between Toulouse and Perpignan, a repeat of the Heineken Cup final of 2003. No longer can the traditional kings of European rugby guarantee their places at the top table.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Robert Kitson, for The Guardian on Sunday 20th January 2013 20.30 Europe/London

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