PARIS, April 8- French clubs will bring a distinctly Spanish flavour to their European Cup quarter-finals this weekend, Perpignan and Biarritz moving their home ties across the border to Barcelona and San Sebastian respectively.
Perpignan are counting on their regional Catalan support and Biarritz their cross-border Basque fans as they take on Toulon and defending champions Toulouse.
The weekend’s two other quarter-finals are Anglo-Irish clashes, Leinster hosting Leicester at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, and Northampton playing Ulster in Milton Keynes. No clubs from Italy, Scotland or Wales made the knock-out phase.
A sell-out 55,000 crowd, including 15,000 Spanish Catalan fans, is expected at Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium for Perpignan’s match against big-spending Toulon, for whom Wales centre Gavin Henson is cup-tied after playing one game for Saracens.
Frenchman Jean-Michel Vuilemin, technical director of the Barcelona-based Catalan rugby federation, said Perpignan had been unable to fill all the demands in Spain’s "Southern Catalonia".
"We could certainly have filled Camp Nou," Vuilemin said of FC Barcelona’s 98,000-capacity stadium.
But Barca coach Pep Guardiola refused to even entertain thoughts that his hallowed ground be churned up by a rugby match, although Perpignan president Paul Goze added that Barca had been instrumental in helping organise the match.
"Without them, the level of success would certainly have not been the same. The goal is that this match does not remain an isolated case. We will organise a match in Barcelona every year," Goze said.
The temporary relocation to Spain found favour with Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal.
"I find it completely normal that for exceptional events, while tapping up their regional identities, Biarritz and Perpignan can secure bigger revenues and increase the audience for these matches by relocating," Boudjellal said.
Biarritz will be hiring buses to take supporters to Estadio Anoeta in the northern Spanish city of San Sebastian in the heart of the country’s Basque country for a re-run of last year’s final.
Biarritz will be without Australian full-back Dane Haylett-Petty (ankle), freeing up his spot for ex-England man Iain Balshaw, and Fijian Ilikena Bolakoro starting on the wing alongside Takudzwa Ngwenya, Damien Traille and Marcelo Bosch.
Coach Jean-Michel Gonzalez said his side, hammered by Clermont in their most recent Top 14 game, needed to use their "home" advantage and "smother" Toulouse.
"The stadium will be practically all red and white. It’s an advantage playing at home in front of people who follow us all the year," he said.
"It’ll be a very complicated game, with a lot of commitment and strategy. I don’t think there’ll be many points between us, and I obviously hope it’ll be us in front."
Leinster, champions in 2009 and 12 of whose side played for Ireland in this season’s Six Nations, will go into the clash with two-time former winners Leicester as clear favourites.
"Going to Leinster will be a huge challenge and they will be odds-on favourites in Dublin with a team full of quality players who are coming off the back of doing superbly well in the last game of the Six Nations," acknowledged Tigers full-back Geordan Murphy.
Northampton qualified for the quarters as number one seeds and will also be favourites to beat Ulster, for whom hooker Rory Best promised a battle royale.
"We’re not happy with just a quarter-final, making up the numbers and then coming home to concentrate on the Magners (Celtic) League," Best said. "We’re very much there to try and win this quarter-final."
Leinster (IRL) v Leicester (ENG), Perpignan (FRA) v Toulon (FRA)
Biarritz (FRA) v Toulouse (FRA), Northampton (ENG) v Ulster (IRL)