Ospreys face crunch match with Clermont

Big-spending Ospreys boast a squad many rugby clubs can only dream of but the Heineken Cup competition has not been kind to the Welsh region.

The final two pool matches of this year’s tournament, starting on Saturday in France, promise another nerve-wracking run-in with games against French and English league toppers Clermont and Leicester respectively.

“We are at crunch time now, and you can’t fail to be excited about it,” said Ospreys and Wales back-row forward Ryan Jones.

“We’ve worked hard to put ourselves in a good position after four rounds of the tournament, but this is where the hard work really starts.”

The Ospreys top Pool 3 with three wins for 16 points, Clermont and Leicester behind on 12 points apiece, with Italian whipping boys Viadana winless.

“If we don’t hit the right performance levels in the final two fixtures this month, then the results we secured in October and December won’t count for anything,” Jones acknowledged.

“We’ve improved throughout the season week on week, but we are under no illusions about where we are right now. We realise that we still have some way to go if we are going to finish off the job.

“We go out to Clermont, knowing that we have to be professional out there and do our job properly to ensure that we bring something back with us. If we can do that, it will then set up the Leicester game to be something special.”

A losing bonus point at Clermont and a home win over Leicester would be enough for Ospreys, who welcome back Welsh internationals Lee Byrne, prop Adam Jones and lock Ian Evans into a team complemented by ex-All Black enforcer Jerry Collins and compatriot Marty Holah at open-side flanker.

The nail-biting nature of European Cup action sees only the six pool winners and two best placed runners-up qualify for the quarter-finals.

Stade Francais will seek to put their miserable Top 14 form to one side and consolidate their place atop Pool 4 with a home game against Bath, with Edinburgh playing Ulster in the other match.

Three-time champions Toulouse play Harlequins at home on Sunday, with Pool 5’s second-placed Sale travelling to Cardiff Blues for what is a must-win game for the Welsh outfit.

Jean-Baptiste Elissalde comes in for the injured Toulouse playmaker David Skrela.

“Against Harlequins, we’ll do well to remember last season’s disaster against Glasgow,” warned Maxime Medard of a loss that cost Toulouse a home quarter-final, which was ultimately lost away to Cardiff Blues.

“It’s out of the question to look down on them. We’ll have to grant them some respect and give everything to impose ourselves because we need a win to qualify.”

Reigning champions Leinster, currently second in Pool 6 behind London Irish, host French club Brive, with the exiles playing away at Scarlets.

Northampton must beat Perpignan in Pool 1 at home on Sunday and then conjure up a win away in Limerick against Munster if they are to reach the knock-out stages for only the second time.

In Pool 2, unbeaten Biarritz travel to Gloucester with Newport-Gwent Dragons taking on Glasgow.

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