It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits down in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to give you his calls. Brace yourself for the Heineken Cup.
Remember you can contact Russ with all your comments and questions on Twitter - @rpetty80.
These teams won the competition in consecutive seasons, (1999 and 2000) and both tasted final defeat at the hands of Leinster in successive years. Ulster lost the 2011 quarter-final to Saints and saw their set-piece falter to a 66% success rate - catastrophic when facing a team based on a dominant forward pack. Strengthened by John Afoa, Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe et al the unbeaten Ulstermen have won all 10 league games by a margin of 28-15 this term (29-17 away). They have also won 8 of their last 11 Heineken Cup games, and are a better side than the 2011 vintage that were beaten in Milton Keynes. The hosts have won 7 of 10 league games by an average score of 21-19 and 4/5 home games by 23-18. In this competition they have won 28/36 home games which compares favourably to Ulster's record of 11 wins from 52 away attempts. However, the visitors have won 3 of their last 4 trips and since that 33-22 final defeat by Leinster, the Saints have been beaten in 5/8 Heineken Cup games. Northampton were famously outscored by 27 points after the break in that 2011 final and this season have been accused of switching off after half-time too. They have only outscored teams twice in the final 40 minutes and have conceded the last points in 7/10 games, with 7/17 league tries against them, coming in the final 20 minutes. Ulster have only scored 2/29 PRO12 tries in the first quarter of games but have scored more points than their opponents in 9/10 second halves. I'm taking the away win at 2.38 and Ulster +3 on the handicap in Friday's big showdown.
Champions of their respective domestic leagues, both sides will be working on the assumption that Leicester are going to do the business against Treviso. Toulouse have won 43/49 home group stage games by an average score of 35-16 and all 7 league games there this season, also by 35-16. Over the last few seasons, they have won 35/35 home league games by an average of 32-15 so are definitely consistent. After a slow start, the Ospreys have won 5 of their last 6 league games by an average of 25-14 and only conceded 8 tries in 10 games. However they have won just 2 of their previous 7 Heineken Cup games and beaten only Treviso and Viadana in their last 16 away games, by an average of 20-25. Toulouse have scored 37 tries in the Top 14 so far, which may be a concern for the visitors, given they have leaked over 30 points on each of their last 3 European trips. With the Welsh pack decimated by injury, it's tough to see past a home win and despite the large handicap, the O's have lost by more than 13 in 6/10 trips to French sides. Toulouse -13 is my call.
Sale have lost 10 of the last 11 Premiership games by an average of 13-27 and 6/8 matches at home by 14-23. They have scored 20 points once in that run, but conceded 20 in 10/11 games. In the midst of a relegation battle, adjusting to both life at a new stadium and yet more coaching changes, they could probably do without high-flying, big-spending Toulon rolling into town. After Round 2, Bryan Redpath said: "We just didn't have enough firepower to compete...the Premiership will be and always has been our main focus...we wanted to make sure that the players didn't embarrass themselves." I'd expect John Mitchell to give a more rousing speech but the visitors have scored 31 tries and possess the meanest defence in their league, leaking just 10 tries and 187 points against. Toulon have won 10/12 league games by an average of 31-16 and won an impressive 5/7 games away by 24-20. They can call upon a monster forward pack which doesn't bode well for a Sale Sharks team that struggled against Northampton's driving maul last week and were taken to pieces by Montpellier. I like the Toulon -9 available and think it may rise a few points before kick-off.
The doom-mongers were out early after Munster's defeat to Racing-Metro, but it's worth remembering that they've begun 6 other campaigns with first round away losses yet reached the semi-final stage in 4 of those years and been eventual winners twice. They have won 51/58 home games in the competition by an average margin of 29-15 and have been beaten at the group stage there just once in the last 33 matches. Domestically, they're equally strong, with 48/57 wins in the PRO12 and 5/6 this season by 23-9. If you are looking for a pattern, then Saracens have won 7/10 Premiership games by 21-15 this year, won 23/33 away league games by 22-16 and 7 of their last 9 Heineken Cup matches by 25-16. Their 10 league games have seen just 18 tries (9 for, 9 conceded) but the visitors have scored 8 in their 2 Heineken Cup excursions so far and only allowed 13 points against. The Sarries' English contingent are going to be buzzing from that Twickenham result and they are a club that pride themselves on spoiling the party and winning tough away games. I'm not willing to oppose Munster on their own turf, but think there is merit in Saracens +4.
Back-to-back Cup winners Leinster are unbeaten in 17 European competition games (16 wins, 1 draw), with their last defeat occurring in December's, Round 3 away trip to Clermont in 2010 (no 'BOD' or Rob Kearney that day). They average a score of 28-13 in that run and 22-14 away and travel to Stade Marcel-Michelin to face a Clermont team that has not been defeated there since losing to a 79th minute converted Biarritz try in November 2009. Clermont have averaged a score of 30-14 over 50 games in the Top 14 and have won 15/17 home games in the Heineken Cup by 32-17. Leinster have won 5 of 6 European meetings between the sides by an average of 20-17 and all bar one of those clashes have been decided by a 7-point margin or less. The last 3 meetings have seen 33, 32 and 34 total points and 5/9 home Clermont Heineken Cup games have also seen approximately that many. The hosts have won 7/12 games by 1-10 points this season and with that fearsome atmosphere alongside Leinster missing a few of the key players that made a difference in last year's semi-final, I see that possibly repeating. That margin is available at 2.62.