European Cup quarterfinals: Teams and predictions
SHOOT-OUT TIME: Stars of the global game will do battle in four compelling encounters this weekend, as the 2019/20 Champions Cup returns.
The action will be behind closed doors in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but in front of limited attendances in France in line with local directives.
With three weekends remaining to reveal the Kings of Europe in the tournament’s 25th season, we have a mouth-watering contest between recently-crowned Pro14 winners Leinster and defending Champions Cup champions Saracens, who clash in a repeat of the 2019 Final.
This meeting will be the teams’ fifth head-to-head in the top flight – with Leinster’s previous 100 percent record in the fixture dented by Sarries’ success at St James’ Park last season, which took the north London outfit to within one of Leinster’s joint-best tally of four titles.
In the other Saturday match – one of two domestic battles in the last eight – ASM Clermont Auvergne faces Racing 92 at Stade Marcel-Michelin, the second time in three years that the two have met at this stage.
Since Leone Nakarawa inspired Racing to victory that day en route to the 2018 Final, Clermont have been faultless in front of their own fans in Europe with eight consecutive wins.
That is the only Champions Cup quarterfinal in which both clubs are looking to add their names to the tournament’s Roll of Honour for the first time.
Of the 13 European Cups shared between the quarterfinalists, five are held between Toulouse and Ulster, who meet on Sunday at Stade Ernest-Wallon.
The other Sunday match pits Exeter Chiefs against Northampton Saints in an all-Premiership encounter at Sandy Park.
This fixture will be the first in the tournament’s knockout stage history at the Devon venue, with Exeter’s only previous quarterfinal coming in 2016 when Jimmy Gopperth’s dramatic, last-gasp conversion earned Wasps victory at the Ricoh Arena.
Scotland flyhalf Finn Russell said Top 14 league leaders Racing 92 are on top of their game, heading to Clermont.
The Parisians have won their two opening domestic fixtures of the new campaign which included last Friday’s convincing 41-17 victory over Montpellier.
“Hopefully we’ll go into this game flying and come out with a win,” Russell told AFP on Monday.
“Even though we played pretty well the first two games, it was in the back of my mind subconsciously. It’s hard not to when it’s such a big game,” he added.
The hosts, without a home defeat in Europe since April 2018, have been given a local exemption to allow 10,000 people into the Stade Marcel-Michelin despite national coronavirus guidelines capping public gatherings at 5,000.
Russell is yet to experience the ‘Yellow Army’ environment and said he planned to talk to former Scotland teammate Greig Laidlaw, who left Clermont at the end of last season, ahead of the fixture.
“It’ll be great to have more fans there. It’s also going to make it harder for us, it’s a great challenge for us to go to Clermont and win in front of their home support,” Russell said.
“I’d imagine it’s one of the best, they always sell out and it’s a great place to play,” he added.
Beale ban ‘shame’
The visitors will be without close-season signing in Australia full-back Kurtley Beale who has been suspended for three weeks for a dangerous tackle in last weekend’s league win.
Russell, who will make his Test return later this year, said he expected Ireland’s Simon Zebo to make his injury comeback to replace the 92-time Wallaby.
“A big shame for us. He’s started pretty well here, apart from the red card. It was just an incident. He’s still learning the players and how they play,” Russell said.
“We have other great players to fill in for him. Zebo is fit and ready to go. Louis Dupichot is a great full-back too, we have great depth in the squad at Racing,” he added.
Fleet-footed Zebo and France centre Virimi Vakatawa’s contracts at the Paris La defence Arena are up at the end of the season.
Media in France and elsewhere claim Zebo could leave and various high-spending English clubs are interested in Vakatawa.
“Hopefully they sign on again. We play some great rugby here,” Russell said.
“With these boys we’re building a great team and a great backline. Hopefully we can keep them all on and keep building for the next few years.”
The quarterfinal predictions and teams follow below …
Saturday, September 19
Leinster v Saracens
(Aviva Stadium, Dublin – Kick-off: 15.00; 14.00 GMT)
Leinster and Saracens have met on four previous occasions in Europe with the Irish province winning three of those clashes.
This will be the third knockout meeting between the clubs, Leinster won their quarterfinal clash in 2018 while Saracens claimed victory in last season’s final.
Leinster have reached the knockout stage of the Champions Cup for the 16th time, only Munster and Toulouse have achieved that feat more often (18 each).
Leinster have won eight of their last nine quarterfinal fixtures, including their last four in a row; five of Leinster’s eight victories in that run have come against Premiership opposition.
Leinster have used just 31 players in the tournament this season, fewer than any other club and nine fewer than Saracens (40) who have used the most of any quarterfinalist (sixth-most overall).
Leinster’s Josh van der Flier has made 98 tackles this season, more than any other player, and he’s also one of six players to have won a joint-high seven turnovers.
@rugby365com: Leinster by 10 points
Leinster: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Hugo Keenan, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (captain), 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Will Connors, 6 Caelan Doris, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Rory O’Loughlin.
Saracens: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Alex Lewington, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Alex Goode, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 Tim Swinson, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Tom Woolstencroft, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Alec Clarey, 19 Callum Hunter-Hill, 20 Calum Clark, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Manu Vunipola, 23 Dominic Morris.
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Joy Neville (Ireland)
TMO: Olly Hodges (Ireland)
ASM Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92
(Stade Marcel-Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand – Kick-off: 18.45; 16.45 GMT)
ASM Clermont Auvergne and Racing 92 have met on five occasions in the Champions Cup with the Parisian side winning three-times, including their solitary knockout stage meeting – a 28-17 victory at Stade Marcel-Michelin in the 2018 quarterfinals.
Clermont lost their last quarterfinal against Racing, however, they had won five in a row beforehand – with those victories coming by an average margin of 20 points.
Racing 92 have a 50 percent win rate at the quarterfinal stage – with their two defeats coming by a single point. Three of their four previous games were against Top 14 opposition.
Racing have made the most metres (2,932), made the most breaks (85) and beaten the most defenders (197) this season, however, Clermont have scored the most points (207).
Racing’s Finn Russell and Clermont’s Camille Lopez have each made the most try assists this season with six apiece. Russell’s teammate Maxime Machenaud is just one behind on five, level with Luke McGrath of Leinster.
@rugby365com: Clermont by five points
ASM Clermont Auvergne: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Apisai Naqalevu, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Bastien Pourailly, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra (captain), 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Judicaël Cancoriet, 6 Arthur Iturria, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Etienne Fourcade, 1 Etienne Falgoux.
Replacements: 16 Adrien Pélissié, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Cristian Ojovan, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 Cheik Tiberghien, 23 Peter Betham.
Racing 92: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Louis Dupichot, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Olivier Klemenczak, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Teddy Iribaren (captain), 1 Eddy Ben Arous, 2 Camille Chat, 3 Georges Henri Colombe, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 5 Dominic Bird, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 7 Fabien Sanconnie, 8 Antonie Claassen.
Replacements: 16 Teddy Baubigny, 17 Hassane Kolingar, 18 Ali Oz, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Antoine Gibert, 23 Francois Trinh-Duc.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Pierre Brousset (France), Ludovic Cayre (France)
TMO: Denis Grenouillet (France)
Sunday, September 20
Toulouse v Ulster
(Stade Ernest-Wallon, Toulouse – Kick-off: 13.30; 12.30 UK time, 11.30 GMT)
Toulouse has won just three of their nine matches against Ulster in the Champions Cup, and their 33 percent win rate against the Irish province is their joint-worst against any side they’ve faced more than once in the competition (also 33 percent v Munster and Saracens).
Toulouse has reached the knockout stage for the 18th time in their history, the joint-most of any club alongside Munster.
Ulster has won just two of their six previous quarterfinals, although one of their two victories at this stage was against Toulouse during their European Cup-winning campaign in 1998/99 (also v Munster in 2011/12).
Toulouse has stolen 12 opposition line-outs this season, three more than any other side and 10 more than Ulster. Individually, no one has made more steals than François Cros (five, level with Scott Cummings, Peter O’Mahony and Gerbrandt Grobler).
Just eight players have played in every minute of this season’s Champions Cup pool stage, and half of them are Ulster players (Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey) while Toulouse’s Sofiane Guitoune is one of the remaining four (also Scott Cummings, James Lowe and Boris Palu).
@rugby365com: Toulouse by 15 points
Toulouse: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Sofiane Guitoune, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Selevasio Tolofua, 7 Francois Cros, 6 Jerome Kaino (captain), 5 Joe Tekori, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Rodrigue Neti, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Emmanuel Meafou, 20 Alban Placines, 21 Zack Holmes, 22 Alexi Bales, 23 Matthis Lebel.
Ulster: 15 Michael Lowry, 14 Rob Lyttle, 13 James Hume, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 8 Nick Timoney, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Sean Reidy, 5 Iain Henderson (captain), 4 Alan O’Connor, 3 Tom O’Toole, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Marty Moore, 19 Sam Carter, 20 Kieran Treadwell, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Matt Faddes, 23 Matt Rea.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Alexandre Ruiz (France), Thomas Charabas (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints
(Sandy Park, Exeter – Kick-off: 17.30; 16.30 GMT)
Exeter and Northampton have never met in European competition before. Both clubs have faced Premiership opposition on five occasions in the Champions Cup with the Chiefs winning three times and Saints winning once.
Exeter has reached the quarterfinal stage just once previously, losing out to Wasps with the final kick of the game at the Ricoh Arena in 2016.
Northampton have reached the quarterfinals on eight previous occasions and have lost five of their six away games – a 7-6 victory at Biarritz their only win on the road at this stage.
Exeter has scored 10 tries from first-phase possession this season, more than any other side, while Northampton has scored the third most (eight, level with four clubs).
Of players to make at least three appearances in the pool stage, Taqele Naiyaravoro topped the charts for average offloads (3.3) and defenders beaten (6.5, level with Virimi Vakatawa) per game.
@rugby365com: Exeter by 18 points
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds (captain), 9 Jack Maunder, 1 Alec Hepburn, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Harry Williams, 4 Jonny Gray, 5 Jonny Hill, 6 Dave Ewers, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 8 Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Tom Francis, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Jannes Kirsten, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Ollie Devoto.
Northampton Saints: 15 George Furbank, 14 Matt Proctor, 13 Fraser Dingwall, 12 Rory Hutchinson, 11 Ahsee Tuala, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Henry Taylor, 1 Manny Iyogun, 2 Mikey Haywood, 3 Owen Franks, 4 David Ribbans, 5 Api Ratuniyarawa, 6 Courtney Lawes, 7 Lewis Ludlam, 8 Teimana Harrison (captain).
Replacements: 16 James Fish, 17 Alex Seville, 18 Paul Hill, 19 Alex Moon, 20 Nick Isiekwe, 21 Shaun Adendorff, 22 Alex Mitchell, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Tom Foley (England)
TMO: Stuart Terheege (England)
Source: @ChampionsCup, additional reporting by AFP