PREVIEW: Champions Cup, Quarterfinals
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Ireland's Six Nations Grand Slam will give an added pep to Munster and Leinster as the Irish provincial powerhouses bid to reach the last four of the European Champions Cup this weekend.
Both are at home with two-time champions Munster, having lost just once as hosts in the quarterfinals, welcoming French giants Toulon, who won the trophy three years in a row from 2013 to 2015.
Three-time champions Leinster have the highest profile quarterfinal as they host two-time defending champions Saracens in a sold-out Lansdowne Road on Sunday with the English side praying that England flyhalf Owen Farrell will be fit.
Farrell will be seeking his own redemption having been outplayed by Leinster's playmaker Johnny Sexton in the Six Nations clash at Twickenham.
The other two quarterfinals feature Wales's Scarlets hosting French side La Rochelle on Friday and an all-French affair as French champions Clermont, reeling from a 0-49 whipping by Toulon last weekend, welcome Racing 92 on Sunday.
Friday, March 30
Scarlets v La Rochelle
(Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli - Kick-off: 17.30; 16.30 GMT; 18.30 France time)
Wayne Pivac has labelled Scarlets' sell-out home European Rugby Champions Cup quarterfinal against La Rochelle on Friday as the Welsh region's biggest game in the four years he has been with them.
The New Zealander, who arrived at Parc y Scarlets in 2014 as assistant coach and was promoted to head coach in 2017, guided Scarlets to the Pro12 title last season.
But, speaking to the Press Association at Scarlets' quarterfinal media day, he said: "This game is a huge opportunity for the club and it is the biggest game, clearly, since I have been here.
"The reaction of the community, selling the ground out after 45 minutes of tickets going on sale just shows what it means to everybody.
"You have got the best of our competition with the best of the French and the English. It is different styles of rugby, it is different challenges for the coaches and team in terms of preparation, reviewing our performance, previewing the opposition.
"You have got the Northern Hemisphere's best players on show."
Meanwhile, Pool One winners La Rochelle will be aiming to reach their first European Rugby Champions Cup semifinal on Friday.
The French debutants have lit up this season's competition, winning their opening three Pool stage matches before overcoming a pair of defeats to qualify as Pool winners with a Round Six victory over Harlequins.
They have scored a competition high of seven tries from kick returns in the pool stage, 39 percent of their total tries scored.
Prediction: This will be the first time the clubs have met. One hundred and forty one of Scarlets' 143 European games have been in the European Cup while La Rochelle have reached the knockout stage of Europe's top flight at the first attempt. Scarlets have won their last four matches, as many as they had managed in 21 previous games and their best winning run since winning seven on the trot on the way to the 2007 semifinals. La Rochelle have won three of four previous games against Welsh opposition, beating Caerphilly twice in 2001/02 and sharing a home win and an away loss against Ebbw Vale in 1997/98. La Rochelle lost two of their three away games in the pool stage, scoring just one try and 16 points in the process. Scarlets and La Rochelle were two of three sides to maintain success rates over 90 percent at both the scrum and line-out in the pool stage; Scarlets had the best line-out rate of any side (94 percent). La Rochelle made the most clean breaks (67) and offloads (86) of any team in the pool stage with Jeremy SInzelle featuring in the top 10 for both categories (nine offloads and nine clean breaks). La Rochelle scored a competition high of seven tries from kick returns in the pool stage, 39 percent of their total tries scored. Tadhg Beirne has a competition-high 14 turnovers this season while Levani Botia leads the way for La Rochelle with eight. Only Bath's Tom Dunn (119) made more tackles in the pool stage than Ken Owens (88), with the Scarlets captain maintaining a success rate of 90 percent. Leigh Halfpenny successfully kicked all 10 of his conversion attempts in the pool stage; no player attempted more and didn’t miss at least one. Scarlets will win by seven points.
Scarlets: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Paul Asquith, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 John Barclay, 7 James Davies, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens (captain), 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Dylan Evans, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Lewis Rawlins, 20 Will Boyde, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Josh Macleod.
La Rochelle: 15 Charles Bouldoire, 14 Vincent Rattez, 13 Arthur Retiere, 12 Pierre Aguillon, 11 Steve Barry, 10 Jérémy Sinzelle, 9 Alexi Bales, 8 Afa Amosa, 7 Zeno Kieft, 6 Levani Botia, 5 Mathieu Tanguy, 4 Romain Sazy, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Pierre Bourgarit, 1 Dany Priso.
Replacements: 16 Hikairo Forbes, 17 Kamaliele Tufele, 18 Mohamed Boughanmi, 19 Gregory Lamboley, 20 Kevin Gourdon, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Benjamin Noble, 23 Pierre Boudehent.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Craig Maxwell-Keys (England)
TMO: David Grashoff (England)
Saturday, March 31
Munster v Toulon
(Thomond Park, Limerick - Kick-off: 15.15; 14.15 GMT; 16.15 France time)
The last few weeks have been incident-packed for Munster skipper Peter O'Mahony.
Having played a prominent role in the Grand Slam success, he proposed to his long-time girlfriend - and got the response he wished for.
However, history is never far from Irish minds and O'Mahoney is no different in recalling the one quarterfinal Munster did lose at their Thomond Park fortress, to Ulster in April 2012.
"Unfortunately the bad memories are always the ones that stick out, and you always have a little bit of fear driving you on," he said.
"That's part of being an elderly fella who has played a few times in the knockout stages and been beaten. You don’t want to be back there again."
O'Mahony pinpointed the resurgent France centre Mathieu Bastareaud as a serious threat and a huge obstacle to Munster progressing - a hurdle which will grow even bigger if Munster's star backs Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway fail to win their respective fitness battles.
2014: Toulon won 24-16, semifinal
2011: Toulon won 32-16
2010: Munster won 45-18
Prediction: This will be the fourth match between the clubs. Both won their home games in the 2010/11 pool stage while Toulon were victorious in the 2014 semifinal in Marseille. Munster have won 70 of their previous 75 home fixtures in the European Cup. ASM Clermont Auvergne are the only Top 14 club to win at Thomond Park in that time (Round Three, 2015/16). Toulon have won eight of their nine meetings with Irish provinces, only losing to Munster in the 2010/11 season. The three-time champions have lost five of their last six away games, only managing to beat Benetton Rugby during that run (30-29). Munster made the fewest metres per match (324) of any side in the pool stage, while Toulon averaged the most (479). Toulon also beat the most defenders of any team in the pool stage (155) with Josua Tuisova (23) and Facundo Isa (19) both featuring among the top 10 individual players. Toulon conceded just three second-half tries, and Munster four, during the pool stage – the lowest in the competition this season. Only one player, Don Armand of the Exeter Chiefs (35), won more line-outs than Peter O’Mahony (29) in the pool stage, while only one player, Yannick Caballero of Castres (five), stole more opposition line-outs than the Munster captain (four). Rory Scannell, CJ Stander and Chris Ashton are three of just five players from the quarterfinalists to play every minute of the pool stage. Chris Ashton is the competition’s all-time leading try scorer with 38, scoring at least one in each of his nine campaigns, including one this season. Munster will take this one by 10 points.
Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Sam Arnold, 12 Rory Scannell, 11 Alex Wootton, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Jack O'Donoghue, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Billy Holland, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 James Cronin, 18 John Ryan, 19 Gerbrandt Grobler, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 James Hart, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Darren Sweetnam.
Toulon: 15 Chris Ashton, 14 Josua Tuisova, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Semi Radradra, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Eric Escande, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Facundo Isa, 6 Raphael Lakafia, 5 Dave Attwood, 4 Juandre Kruger, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Florian Fresia.
Replacements: 16 Anthony Etrillard, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Emerick Setiano, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Anthony Belleau, 21 Malakai Fekitoa, 22 Alby Mathewson, 23 Samu Manoa.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Ben Whitehouse (Wales), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)
Sunday, April 1
Clermont v Racing 92
(Stade Marcel-Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand - Kick-off: 14.00; 12.00 GMT)
Clermont scrumhalf Morgan Parra said the French champions are playing Sunday's European Champions Cup quarterfinal to avoid having a "shitty" season.
His side host Racing 92, the team they succeeded as French champions, in the last eight of European club rugby's premier competition knowing that their season rests on those 80 minutes.
Clermont's Top 14 title defence has been a disaster as they sit down in ninth following last Sunday's humiliating 0-49 thrashing by Toulon.
They are 16 points off the top six play-off places with just four matches to play, meaning they have almost no hope of defending their crown.
"We're playing for our season, we know it," said Clermont captain Parra.
"Either you're still alive [after Sunday) or the season stops there and it will be, excuse the expression, shitty.
"We will have messed up, even if we've had lots of injuries. We can't put everything down to injuries."
Clermont beat Racing comfortably in the Top 14 semifinals last season before going on to record a second title in seven years.
But 12 months on and Racing, who sit second in the league, appear far better equipped to progress to the semifinals than their hosts.
"Obviously, it means it's THE match of the season - it will determine what comes next," said wing Remy Grosso.
Last weekend's Toulon humiliation has left no scars on Clermont's players, according to coach Franck Azema.
"Even if the return from Toulon was tough, the excitement is starting to build.
"The concentration we felt ahead of the last European Cup clashes is there."
2014: Clermont won 28-3
2013: Racing 92 won 13-9
2011: Clermont won 28-17
Prediction: This will be the fifth meeting in European competition between the Top 14 clubs. The four previous matches have all been in the pool stage and all won by the home side on the day. This will be Clermont's ninth quarterfinal appearance. They lost their initial three matches at this stage, but have won their last five. Clermont have won their last three fixtures against Top 14 opposition, including their most recent quarterfinal game against RC Toulon last season. Racing have won their last three matches in a row, and they have never won four consecutive Champions Cup matches before. Clermont won a competition high 49 turnovers in the pool stage with 20 different players contributing to the total. Racing made a total of just 30 clean breaks in the pool stage, the fewest of any side. Teddy Thomas (five) and Virimi Vakatawa (five) accounted for a third of these. Clermont enjoyed less possession than any other side in the pool stage, averaging just 15 mins 17 secs per match. Leone Nakarawa made the most carries (94) and offloads (17) of any player in the pool stage. He is one of just five players from the eight quarterfinalists to have played every minute of this campaign. Maxime Machenaud landed 19 of his 20 kicks at goal in the pool stage, giving him the best success rate (95 percent) of anyone to attempt 10+ kicks. Alivereti Raka has the best average gain (11.6 metres) of anyone to make 10+ carries in the pool stage, ranking fifth for defenders beaten (20) in the process. Racing will edge it by five points.
Clermont: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Peter Betham, 13 Damian Penaud, 12 Rémi Lamerat, 11 Remi Grosso, 10 Pato Fernandez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Peceli Yato, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Etienne Falgoux.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Loni Uhila, 18 Davit Zirakashvili, 19 Sitaleki Timani, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Wesley Fofana.
Racing 92: 15 Louis Dupichot, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Yannick Nyanga, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Ole Avei, 17 Vasil Kakovin, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Boris Palu, 20 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 21 Dan Carter, 22 Xavier Chauveau, 23 Joe Rokocoko.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Thomas Foley (England), Paul Dix (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Leinster v Saracens
(Aviva Stadium, Dublin - Kick-off: 15.30; 14.30 GMT)
Johnny Sexton for his part is not using the Six Nations triumph as a weather vane in terms of ending Saracens' run as kings of Europe - indeed the English side secured a memorable semifinal win over Munster at Lansdowne Road last year.
Sexton described that performance as "brilliant" this week and added the English club seemed to thrive off "that 'against the world' [vibe]".
"Look there is a few leftover players [from the England match a 24-15 victory for the Irish on March 17] that are playing for Saracens and there is a few playing for us but I think it is totally different circumstances," said Sexton.
"They are back-to-back champions and we are sort of striving to get back to where we were and become that champion team ourselves."
Farrell will be key to Saracens' hopes - they are giving him until Friday to prove he has recovered from a quad injury - but extraordinarily robust centre Brad Barritt will take the field.
Only on Tuesday he had a plate inserted under local anaesthetic into his fractured cheekbone and refused having a general anaesthetic as it would have ruled him out of Sunday's clash.
"It was much like a routine tooth operation!" the 31-year-old told the club website.
"Thankfully it's not something that will rule me out of the weekend.
"It's not a game I want to miss and in terms of the preparation we've had with the full session [on Wednesday] I'm confident with it."
2011: Leinster won 43-20
2010: Leinster won 25-23
Prediction: This will be the third meeting between No.1-ranked Leinster and the holders, but the first knockout clash, with Leinster winning the two previous pool stage encounters in 2010/11. This is the seventh consecutive season that Saracens have reached the quarterfinals, and they have won their last five in a row. This is the fourth time in the last five seasons that Leinster have progressed to the knockout stage, winning their last two quarterfinals. Leinster have won their last eight home games in the Champions Cup, with those victories coming by an average margin of 25 points. Saracens have won three of their last four away games against Irish opposition (Lost one). Saracens were the top points (205) and try (24) scorers in the pool stage this season while Leinster were ranked second in both categories (176 and 22). Two-time champions, Saracens, had the lowest tackle success rate during the pool stage, completing just 84 percent of their attempts. Leinster conceded a competition-low 9.7 turnovers per game in the pool stage, contributing to the fact they averaged the most amount of possession of any team (21 mins 36 secs per game). Owen Farrell is the top points scorer (81) in the competition this season, and is third on the all-time list with 677 behind Scarlets’ Stephen Jones (869) and Ronan O’Gara of Munster (1,365). Leinster’s Luke McGrath has six try assists to his name this season, the most of any player in the competition. Leinster will win by eight points
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Isa Nacewa (captain), 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Seán Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Nick McCarthy, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Jackson Wray, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Nick Isiekwe, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 Dominic Day, 20 Blair Cowan, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Chris Wyles.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Ludovic Cayre (France)
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (France)
Sources: AFP & @ChampionsCup